Doc's reporting stifled, court hears

A Government submission supporting Meridian Energy's proposed $2 billion Project Hayes wind farm stunted a Department of Conservation submission opposing the proposal, an Environment Court appeal hearing on the development was told yesterday.

Otago Conservation Board member Garry Nixon, of Alexandra, and former board member and chairman Fergus Sutherland, of Papatowai, were called to give evidence by the board, which is a section 274 party in the hearing.

In his written evidence, Dr Nixon said Doc made a submission on Project Hayes after it was publicly notified in 2006, although parts of the submission were restricted so as not to conflict with government support for the project.

"It was decided the submission would not mention adverse effects on the landscape of the project area or seek any relief with respect to those effects.

Doc could not conceive of any relief that would address those effects, short of seeking that consent for the majority of the project be declined.

"It was considered that this would be inconsistent with the Crown submission," Dr Nixon said.

He said the conservation board also submitted on Project Hayes, but board members "appreciated the fact that because the board was an independent statutory body, there was no requirement for its submission to be consistent with the Crown's".

"Consequently, the board's submission opposed the application in its entirety on a number of grounds, including landscape," Dr Nixon said.

A letter dated September 5, 2006, from then minister for the environment David Benson-Pope to then minister of conservation Chris Carter was supplied to the Otago Daily Times during yesterday's hearing.

It stated the "all-of-government" submission on Project Hayes purposely did not include matters to do with landscape or local effects.

"I [David Benson-Pope] have asked that the submission be restricted to the matters of most importance nationally, which we see as renewable energy, wind power, and transmission issues.

I do not intend that the submission will cover any local effects, as these are best canvassed in submissions made by local interests," the letter said.

Through cross-examination, Mike Holm, Maniototo Environmental Society lawyer, asked Dr Nixon whether Doc had "in effect been gagged by the all-of-government submission".

Judge Jon Jackson intervened, saying it was not appropriate to ask Dr Nixon such a question, as he was not speaking for Doc, and it would be unfair.

"It's at best hearsay.

I can see why your client might be concerned about that, but I'm not sure that it's fair," Judge Jackson said.

Mr Holm said he would raise the issue as a matter of submission.

The court also heard about confusion between the Central Otago District Council and the conservation board.

During cross-examination, and within his written evidence, Mr Sutherland explained how the conservation board misunderstood CODC definitions of land with outstanding values.

Before the council's 1998 release of its draft district plan, the conservation board had negotiated extensively with farmers and the council, in order to ascertain appropriate protection of land deemed outstanding within Central Otago, he said.

The conservation board understood land above 900m would be afforded the same status and treatment as land officially defined in the plan as being of outstanding natural landscape.

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