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Ruataniwha scheme suffers severe setback

Rebecca Macfie updates her Ruataniwha story as the Court of Appeal rules against a land-swap deal by the Department of Conservation.

Rebecca Macfie's coverage of the Ruataniwha scheme.
Rebecca Macfie's coverage of the Ruataniwha scheme.

The controversial Ruataniwha dam and ­irrigation scheme in Central Hawke’s Bay this week suffered a severe setback, with Forest & Bird successfully appealing a land-swap deal by the Department of Conservation that is crucial to the project.

Last October, the department’s director-general, Lou Sanson, revoked the protected status of 22ha of ecologically significant land in the Ruahine Forest Park so that it could be exchanged for 170ha of farmland from the dam developer company, the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company (HBRIC). This was to enable the 22ha to be inundated by the proposed 90 million-cubic-metre dam on the Makaroro River.

More: Rebecca Macfie’s on the Ruataniwha dam project.

But in a majority decision, the Court of Appeal has ruled Sanson’s decision unlawful. The law did not allow Sanson to revoke the protected status of the 22ha solely to enable it to be swapped for land elsewhere, even if he thought the exchange would lead to overall gains for the department. To allow Sanson’s decision would be to “permit the territorial erosion of former forest parks in a way which defeats the statutory presumption of preservation and protection”, the court ruled.

Sanson has been directed to reconsider his decision to revoke the status of the land. However, the court has set a high bar for that decision, saying the protected status can only be revoked if the intrinsic values of the land no longer justify preservation and protection.

DoC and/or the Hawke’s Bay Regional Investment Company could seek to appeal to the Supreme Court, but leave to do so would be granted only if the appeal related to a significant question of law of major public interest.

HBRIC chairman Andy Pearce says the decision does not spell the end of the Ruataniwha project, and the company is “contemplating our process with DoC”.

HBRIC had hoped to have the financing package for the $345-million dam and irrigation scheme finalised by the end of last month.

*This article has been corrected on September 13, 2016. The original article omitted to state that Forest & Bird was the appellant.

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