Mackenzie divisions as wide as ever
The businessman behind a huge dairy operation being created in the Mackenzie Basin is firing barbs at an Environment Court judge and a green group. David Williams reports.
Dunedin accountant Murray Valentine has been methodical and meticulous in planning for a $100-million-plus dairy conversion in the Mackenzie Basin.
Valentine, the owner of Simons Pass Station – 9700 hectares of land, some of it Crown-owned, bounded by the Pukaki and Tekapo Rivers and Lake Pukaki – says he’s secured or sought nearly 80 consents and pre-approvals from various public bodies for an intensive, irrigated dairy farm operation.
Work has started. By the time the farm’s fully developed, there’ll be about 5500 cows, and 10,000 other stock animals, on 4500ha of irrigated land. Almost 4000 hectares is earmarked for conservation, some through the controversial tenure review process.
But after 15 years of preparation, and millions of dollars spent on various consent applications, expert witness evidence, legal fees and court appeals, Valentine’s frustration is bubbling to the surface.
Following a recent Environment Court decision about when tighter development rules in the Mackenzie district take effect, Valentine tells Newsroom that Judge Jon Jackson is conflicted. He’s conflicted, Valentine says, as a former president of lobby group Forest & Bird, and, after deciding the Mackenzie development rules, going on to rule on when they took effect.
On the latter situation, Valentine says: “They should have got another judge to hear that. That’s not hard – we’ve got plenty of bloody Environment Court judges sitting around doing nothing. That was just blatantly wrong.”
On Jackson’s former role with Forest & Bird, between 1994 and 1996, Valentine says: “We just know that we’re not going to win anything.”
He adds: “We’re just on the back foot all the time.”
Jackson is one of the South Island’s most influential judges for development rule-setting. His official profile doesn’t mention his former post at Forest & Bird – ties he cut when he became a judge in September 1996.
In 2012, The Timaru Herald reported Jackson stood down from appeals over water consent decisions in the upper Waitaki district – after complaints by Simons Pass Station. At the time, Jackson called the link “fairly tenuous”, but stepped down because, he said, a lay person could potentially detect bias in the Simons Pass appeal, being taken by Forest & Bird.
While he’s handing out criticism, Valentine accuses the environmental lobby of effectively organising a cabal to oppose his plans. In 2016, Simons Pass settled a long-running Environment Court battle with Forest & Bird, Mackenzie Guardians, and others, over water consent conditions. Now, it’s the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) – “their mates”, Valentine calls them – leading legal action over development in the Mackenzie.
“Why have we got some Auckland outfit telling us what we should be doing?” Valentine asks. “It just gets you.”
He says if limits were imposed on the amount of extra land that could be irrigated in the Mackenzie there’d be no debate. If that had happened, the land proposed to be irrigated through the Mackenzie Irrigation Company, of which Valentine is chairman, would have gone through already.
“The whole of the Mackenzie is not going to be covered in irrigators. And I agree that they shouldn’t be beside the road; I agree they should be appropriately planned.
“But I don’t agree that you should try to stop someone who’s three-quarters of the way through what they’re doing.”
What has Valentine spent on his plans to date, since he bought Simons Pass in 2003?
“I’m not game to tell you, because you’ll think I’m just such a clown. You’d think ‘No one could do that’.”
Vast sums? In the millions of dollars? “Good money after bad? We’re way past that.”
EDS executive director Gary Taylor, however, says he doesn’t think Judge Jackson is conflicted – and Valentine’s “just whinging”.
“The person who’s best able to address the technical issue of when the rules should take effect would be the judge who dealt with the substantive case. That’s the way the Environment Court works.”
Jackson’s links to Forest & Bird are a long bow to draw, Taylor says. Simons Pass had plenty of opportunity to raise the matter at court hearings, and, he adds, “to the best of my knowledge, never did”.
“All judges have past lives and it’s a small country.”
Focus on the merits
Is EDS colluding with other environmental groups? Taylor replies: “There’s no impropriety anywhere in any of this.
“He’s [Valentine] having a swipe at us, he’s having two swipes at the judge – he needs to focus on the merits of whether it’s environmentally acceptable to introduce intensive dairying on Simons Pass, which is Crown pastoral lease land.”
EDS is a national environmental group, Taylor says, so the fact it’s based in Auckland is irrelevant.
“We base what we do and say on expert evidence and good law.”
There’s some irony in Valentine playing the victim.
(“We’ve got everything against us,” Valentine says. “There are probably 30 stations in the Mackenzie. We haven’t got the resource to attack these guys, we’ve just got to let them go.”)
He’s a wealthy businessman. He has a chartered accountancy practice in Dunedin, farming interests in two intensively irrigated farms in North Otago, he’s a part-owner of Mainland Poultry and has an interest in a Christchurch property subdivision. Beyond his farm and irrigation interests, he’s also a director of five large South Island companies, including Queenstown’s Trojan Holdings Ltd and Whale Watch Kaikoura Ltd.
And while debate about greening the Mackenzie has made national headlines, much of it has been about so-called cubicle farming of dairy cows, the Environment Court declaring the basin an outstanding natural landscape (another Judge Jackson decision) and, most recently, a Hong Kong businessman’s plans to build a private lodge just 40 metres from Lake Pukaki.
That’s left Valentine quietly gathering approvals. Now, it seems he – and wife Barbara, a fellow director of Simons Pass Station – are holding most of the cards in this high-stakes environmental game.
The roughly 80 approvals sought by Simons Pass for more intensive farming include: discretionary consents from the Commissioner of Crown Lands for irrigation and spraying out large areas; water-take and dairy-discharge consents from the Canterbury Regional Council (ECan); and certificates of compliance from the Mackenzie District Council for the placement of pivot irrigators, some of them creating circles 1.3 kilometres in diameter.
Of the proposed 4500-hectare irrigation area, 800 hectares is already intensively dryland farmed – with small paddocks direct-drilled with seeds, for pastures such as rye corn, triticale and lucerne, to feed stock.
Valentine: “If you looked at it in the spring it would be as green as it will be when we’ve got irrigation on.”
(Taylor points out Simons Pass has discharge consents, granted in 2013 by ECan without public notification, for up to 15,000 cows. “The reality is, notwithstanding what he says his present intentions are, it’s the scope of the consents that determine what can happen on that land,” Taylor says. “He could sell it tomorrow and a new landowner could come in and the number of cows would be the number that the consents allow.”)
“That’s all they’re pushing us to – we’ll run the place by drones and driverless vehicles.” – Murray Valentine
Under the court settlement with Forest & Bird and Mackenzie Guardians, Simons Pass has agreed to set aside 2550 hectares and not farm it. Under tenure review, a further 1350 hectares will go to the Crown. In total, that’s an area almost the size of 24 Hagley Parks – Christchurch’s sprawling central-city park.
But tenure review – a controversial process through which lessees and the Government split a former farm station into a freehold portion and conservation land – isn’t a done deal.
On one hand, Valentine says: “For me it’s all part of one package. You can’t have one without the other.”
But he also points out LINZ has granted discretionary consents to irrigate Simons Pass. It’s yet another ace up Valentine’s sleeve.
“If the tenure review doesn’t go through, that doesn’t mean the development won’t go through,” Valentine says. “But what it does mean is the land that I was giving over to the Crown, won’t go to the Crown, either. And I’ll just keep grazing it – which is probably the best thing for it, anyway.”
(Taylor throws this back at Valentine as a “fundamental conflict”: that Simons Pass’s Crown pastoral lease land is in tenure review yet he’s “racing ahead as if he owns the property already, getting consents for intensive dairying”. Valentine says “we actually used the rules that were then operative”. Taylor agrees nothing illegal has been done. He says Simons Pass has exploited loopholes in the law and planning framework, gaps between agencies and inadequacies by the council and Land Information New Zealand.)
Under so-called plan change 13, the Environment Court-mandated development rules for the Mackenzie district, farmers will have to justify new buildings to the council, instead of being allowed to build certain things as of right. Even fencing will require a resource consent. Valentine says the council could call expert witnesses and it’ll be open for other people to give evidence.
If Simons Pass can’t build a house for its dairy operation, because it’s no longer permitted, it’ll find another way, he says. It might bus its farm workers from nearby Twizel or buy robotic milking systems.
“And that’s all they’re pushing us to – we’ll run the place by drones and driverless vehicles,” he says. “Some of the things that we said would benefit in our original resource consent won’t happen, because we said we’d have 120 staff.”
Fighting the current
It’s been a long battle for farmers upstream of the Waitaki Dam to take water. Firstly, electricity generator Meridian Energy, later joined by Genesis Energy, agreed to allow 150 million cubic metres of water to be taken for new irrigation from is hydro canals. That would allow water to be applied to an extra 25,000 hectares of farmland. The following flurry of water-take applications was then called in by the Government.
A water allocation plan was established and the called in applications were considered, once again, from 2007. Environment Canterbury held hearings in 2009 and 2010, with decisions issued in 2010 and, in the cases of Simons Pass and Simons Hill, 2012.
An appeal by Forest & Bird, joined by Mackenzie Guardians and Fish and Game, opposed conditions of the water permits issued to the two stations. Settlement was confirmed by Environment Court Judge Jane Borthwick in October 2016.
In tandem, years were spent debating something called the Mackenzie Agreement. Launched publicly in 2013, it was an agreed blueprint for the Mackenzie, allowing a balance of intensive development and land locked up for conservation.
Of the 269,000 hectares of “flat and easy country” in the Mackenzie, the agreement recommended 100,000 hectares be protected – including 26,000 hectares already in Department of Conservation protection or earmarked for it. And 24,600 hectares could be developed, including 9600 hectares “proposed for large-scale, intensive livestock farming on five properties”
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