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Meridian freezes development while it consults

By Chris Hutching

Friday 1st August 2003

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Meridian Energy's $1.5 billion hydro-generation Project Aqua in the Waitaki Valley in South Canterbury has moved into high gear with a freeze on all development affecting 2000ha in the district.

The company has invoked its statutory powers ahead of consent hearings for Project Aqua, a proposed hydroelectricity scheme with a 60km canal taking two-thirds of the 360cu m per second Waitaki River, building six hydro power stations, two outfalls and new high-voltage transmission lines running along the south side of the lower Waitaki Valley, from an intake at Kurow to an outfall 6km from the coast.

Earlier this year the government passed legislation giving Meridian Energy powers to seize private property and compensate owners as a "requiring authority" under s167(4) of the Resource Management Act.

Giving Meridian network utility status allows the company to change its designs without requiring a change to resource consents and prevents the designated land being used for things that are deemed incompatible with Project Aqua.

All development in the designated area must be approved by Meridian which might otherwise face bigger compensation claims from landowners who continue to carry out improvements between the time the land is designated (May 14) and when it receives resource consent.

Some landowners are uneasy about the designation because in other cases when authorities like Transit have designated land and there has been a long delay in obtaining consents the neighbourhoods have lost relative value because owners stop maintaining properties and many try to sell.

Meridian's option to buy contracts with affected landowners contain clauses in which the landowner promises not to oppose the energy company's resource consent applications nor comment against the project.

Meridian faces challenges from recreational and environmental groups including the Green Party over its plans and it also faces a resource dispute with a group of irrigators who want to take water from the source of the river at Lake Tekapo, that Meridian says underpins the viability of Project Aqua.

At the same time Environment Canterbury wants to assert its role in regional water allocation and belatedly intervened last month by commissioning a water allocation study into what chairman Richard Johnson described as a "water grab" (by Meridian).

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