Tough Mackenzie farm rules start to bite

Two big irrigators on a Mackenzie farm might have to stay dry if a new consent decision goes unchallenged. David Williams reports.

Tough environmental rules are starting to bite in the Mackenzie Basin.

A farm company’s twin land-use consent applications – to approve retrospectively the clearance of indigenous vegetation, and to irrigate and intensively farm 169 hectares of land, near Lake Pukaki – have been refused.

The decision, by Mackenzie District Council-appointed hearing commissioners, means two pivot irrigators already in place at Maryburn Station can’t be used. “We appreciate that difficulties arise for both the council and the applicant from these decisions,” the ruling, released on Friday, says.

The decision is sure to send a chill through the Mackenzie farming community – many of whom made submissions supporting applicant Classic Properties Ltd – because of the precedent it sets.

Classic Properties Ltd – which could yet appeal last week’s consent decision – argued it could rely on an irrigation consent from the Canterbury Regional Council (ECan) to intensify its farming operation and justify indigenous vegetation clearance.

But Mackenzie District Council-appointed commissioners Darryl Millar and Chris Clarke say that consent gives no exemption from local district plan rules. The commissioners sided with ecological advice from the Department of Conservation and environmental group Mackenzie Guardians, that the indigenous vegetation cleared was “significant”. Consent conditions clearly can’t mitigate the unauthorised clearance – which took place in December 2016.

Adverse landscape and visual effects of the irrigated farm development will be more than minor, the decision says, while the effect on outstanding natural landscape values will be “irreversible”.

Thousands of hectares of Maryburn Station have been retired through the tenure review process and the Environment Court-confirmed irrigation consent. But the commissioners say that can’t be used as an offset. Ecological experts told the commissioners the indigenous vegetation could recover, but it could take decades. On the other hand, the decision notes: “If consent is granted, and implemented, the prospect of recovery is nil.”

“The farm relies on water and irrigation is its lifeblood.” – Penny Murray

Classic Properties director Penny Murray told the consent hearing, held last month, the company has made “significant investment” in its irrigation infrastructure, including a 10-kilometre-plus pipeline to a nearby canal. The pipeline already supplies two pivot irrigators which don’t need resource consent.

Murray said in written evidence: “Without irrigation to overcome (or at least manage) climatic extremes it would be impossible to farm Maryburn as it is currently farmed. The farm relies on water and irrigation is its lifeblood.”

The commissioners say there are positives in granting the consents, from a farming perspective. But they say those positives don’t outweigh the adverse effects that would – and already have – occurred.

Soil erosion might result on the cleared land, the commissioners admit. But they don’t accept that means the default position to avoid this should be to grant the consents, allowing irrigation and pastoral intensification.

Pleas for commissioners to take into account the “real world” effects fell on deaf ears. They say: “We do not accept that the pre-determined actions of a party should influence the outcome of a resource consent process.”

Mackenzie environmental issues often boil over into national debates, especially over strict new rules for farm development. Just last week, an environmental group asked the Conservation Minister to step in to protect ecological values on public conservation land over which an irrigation pipeline is being built.

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