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Appeal dismissed

An appeal by LeaderBrand Produce on the conditions that reduced its annual water take from the Makauri and Matokitoki aquifers was dismissed by commissioners at a hearing last week.

Independent commissioner Dr Brent Cowie, who chaired the three-person panel, said they did not have the scope to change Gisborne District Council’s water allocation targets.

The commissioners adjourned the hearing of other appeals by LeaderBrand relating to water quality and quantity for more information.

In the first hearing of its kind here, the company was appealing under a section of the Resource Management Act against a number of conditions on its water rights.

These saw its annual water take cut to 661,030 cubic metres in the final three years of its five year consent. Its annual allocation of 4.2 million cubic litres was originally reduced to 1.5 million but the council reduced that figure by a further 838,970.

Dr Cowie said the commisioners recognised that while that allocation might not provide for the growth that LeaderBrand would like to continue, they did think in terms of the application the company had been “treated with a degree of preference”.

The targets set by the council were valid in terms of the national policy statement and they did not have scope to change those targets during this hearing process.

It could be done by the council or somebody seeking a private plan change, or by the Environment Court.

They did not have the scope to change the targets and therefore they did not have scope to sustain the objection in so far as the volumes of water allocated.

“In that regard the objection will not be upheld,” he said.

Dr Cowie said they accepted new hydrogeological information that was not available previously — during the hearing consultant Jon Williamson said in the past six years the Makauri Aquifer had increased its storage, which was disputed by the council.

That raised issues about long-term trends of sustainability but again they did not have the scope to take that into account because the targets were “set in stone” and they could not amend them.

The objectors had the ability to go to the Environment Court if they wished to pursue that line.

“It is not absolutely black and white but we don’t think it is a strong shade of grey either,” he said.

Earlier in the hearing, LeaderBrand farming general manager Gordon McPhail said the company was a 100 percent family-owned business that had been around for more than 45 years.

At its core, it had always been a fresh vegetable producer. Its relationship with water to grow those vegetables had been there since its inception.

In the latter half of LeaderBrand’s existence there was a shift to a domestic focus and higher-value vegetables.

LeaderBrand represented over 60 percent of the lettuce market in New Zealand and close on 80 percent of the broccoli market. It represented just over 50 percent of the salad category.

Its domestic focus led it to an over $20 million investment in a salad facility.

Revenue doubled in the last four years and there had been an increase to 280 fulltime equivalent workers a year, with a total of about 600 staff employed during its busy period.

That equated to $20 million in wages annually in Gisborne. They were probably the largest private employers in Gisborne.

“Nothing works without water,” he said. “These crops do not grow without water.”

Ground water was essential for that. Crops needed watering 365 days a year.

They were aligning with the Gisborne economic development plan and had applied to the Provincial Growth Fund to look at covered production in Gisborne.

That cemented Gisborne as a leader for the supply of fresh vegetables.

“This is a long-term generational game for us,” he said. “We have proven this over the last 50 years.”

The strategy had not changed from day one and it would continue, he said.