Casting vote decides water issue

Limiting interim consents replacing 100-year-old mining water rights to just seven years will stifle development of agribusiness in the region and have "significant repercussions" for the economy, Otago regional councillor Michael Laws says.

By a razor-thin majority earlier this week, the council voted to adopt a blanket rule for interim water consents as it worked to meet its new requirements, following Environment Minister David Parker’s investigation into the matter last year.

"The inequities built into this policy are serious. Almost 60 deemed permit applications have already been given consents and 80% of those are for periods of 25-35 years," Cr Laws said in a statement.

"The effect of Wednesday’s decision is to effectively put any new agricultural, horticultural or viticultural development into stasis."

While initially scheduled as a closed-door session, councillors voted 6-5 to take legal advice in private and hold the vote and debate on the deemed permits plan change in public.

Then, after more than an hour in a public-excluded session with public law specialist Prof Mai Chen, a 5-5 tie vote on the direction the council would take was broken by chairwoman Cr Marian Hobbs’ casting vote — giving the council a "one-size-fits-all policy".

Cr Hobbs voted against holding the vote in public, but during the debate said she would vote for the blanket rule "almost regrettably".

There were too many procedural fishhooks and costs for applicants if the council added the possibility for permit holders to get a consent for their water take as a "restricted discretionary activity".

The rejected scheme would have allowed for a longer consent duration — to the end of 2035 — if the application showed "no more than minor" negative effects on the water body, including the cumulative effect of the activity.

Further, she said she was not pleased to learn a 35-year consent was granted a year ago to a permit holder who got in early.

Earlier this month, 21 groups spoke at the council’s public forum, including irrigators who said the short-term consent approach to the deemed permit overhaul and the uncertainty for investment it would bring would "destroy rural New Zealand".

Cr Hobbs at the meeting questioned the ongoing viability of 35-year consents altogether, given the uncertainty about the impact of climate change.

Attending the meeting via teleconference, Cr Bryan Scott said there was only one option that met Mr Parker’s criteria.

Council chief executive Sarah Gardner said this week’s decision and then taking the matter "straight out to consultation" was the only way the council could meet its required timeframe.

The option taken was more straightforward and to allow the possibility of some interim consents extending to 2035 would have opened a "Pandora’s box of more questions, more debate".

"I think the solution that most matches what the minister is asking you to do is [the one taken]."

But she said the "one-size-fits-all" approach would create winners and losers.

It was a temporary solution, she said.

Notification is scheduled for March 18.

Water consent vote

  • For: Cr Michael Deaker, Cr Alexa Forbes, Cr Marian Hobbs, Cr Gretchen Robertson,  Cr Bryan Scott
  • Against: Cr Hilary Calvert, Cr Carmen Hope, Cr Michael Laws, Cr Kevin Malcolm,  Cr Andrew Noone
  • Did not vote (conflict of interest): Cr Kate Wilson, Cr Gary Kelliher

* Cr Hobbs had the casting vote in favour of Option A. 

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