Tarras scheme reprieve

Potential irrigator Tarras Water Ltd has had a reprieve, but it has come with a stern warning from the Otago Regional Council.

The council voted 7-3 to overturn its own hearing panel's recommendation not to amend the long-term plan to allow for investment in the irrigation scheme at a meeting in Dunedin yesterday. Instead, the ORC is proposing the amendment go ahead.

As the decision gives the council the option to invest in the scheme, a meeting will be held, possibly as early as next month, when councillors will make the decision whether to invest - with conditions attached - or not.

But the unusual back-down came with a warning from Cr Duncan Butcher about some unanswered questions the council had about the project.

''Tarras Water need to be more forthcoming about details, now they have time to give us those guarantees.''

The decision was made after a plea for support by Tarras Water Ltd chairman Pete Jolly, John Rodwell, a director, and farmer Adam Speirs in the council's public forum and a nearly 90-minute debate by councillors.

Hearing panel member Gerry Eckhoff, who said he had suggested the panel turn down the investment proposal, acknowledged a major about-turn.

He had since been ''strongly lobbied'' by those connected to the scheme before coming to the conclusion that he had a ''moral obligation'' to fulfil the ''level of comfort'' he believed Tarras Water had been given of the council's support for the project.

''Absolutely no assurances were given by any member of the ORC and no guarantees were given. I call it a level of comfort.

''I'm impaled on the horns of a dilemma.''

That ''level of comfort'' meant Tarras Water had shown some naivete and regrettably did not have a plan B, he said.

''I place myself in an utterly ridiculous position ... I cannot support the hearing panel recommendation.''

Chairman Stephen Woodhead, a hearing panel member, said he had not supported the panel's recommendation, as he believed the project would help produce a healthy, vibrant, productive community, alongside good environmental outcomes for the Lindis River.

The council had been involved and encouraged the Tarras community towards this point over many years, he said.

''We can't pull out and leave them stranded after all these years. It's a first step, including it as an amendment. I implore you to take the first step.''

However, Cr Michael Deaker, who had not been involved in the hearings, believed the environmental gains were not sufficient and the risks unresolved.

''I'm not prepared to support this as a ratepayer and a councillor.''

Cr Brian Scott said it boiled down to the council's policy of being the ''funder of last resort'' which it was not in the Tarras case.

Investment would impact on general rates, increasing it from levels that were ''tolerable to something that were not'', he said.

Cr Trevor Kempton said that while rates might increase in the short-term they would drop again.

''The risks have been overblown.''

Cr David Shepherd, a former irrigator, said it would take ''donkeys' years of work and finance commitments to get real benefits'' from such a scheme.

''In my view it would be a real shame if at the first hurdle we support the panel's recommendation.''

Cr Gretchen Robertson said it was not often an opportunity to support environmental gains also came with a small financial return.

''We shouldn't close the doors today.''

Hearing panel chairman Sam Neill was disappointed with the decision. He said he felt the issue had been manipulated and would come across to ratepayers as the council saying it knew what was best for it.

Mr Jolly, who admitted to being ''gobsmacked'' when he heard of the panel's recommendation, said after the meeting he was pleased with the decision. He said it was ''very courageous'' as it went against public submissions.

''It was the right decision. I wouldn't call it a victory. It's a significant decision and will allow us to continue along the planning path.''

He believed the panel had not understood fully the implications of the decision, especially on the community.

''I firmly believe water is the next generation's oil.''

Tarras Water could meet the council's demands for more information, he said.

- rebecca.fox@odt.co.nz