Waikato mayor crossing fingers Sleepyhead Estate wrangle can still avoid Environment Court

With the countdown on as to whether the $1.2 billion Sleepyhead Estate plan will be pushed into the Environment Court soon, Waikato mayor Allan Sanson says things are looking up in talks between appellants and the developer.

“If you’d asked me a month ago, I was probably getting pretty frustrated … but now I feel a lot more confident,” said the Waikato District Council mayor, who has championed the plan by Auckland’s Turner family, owner of Australasia’s biggest bedmaker The Comfort Group, to build new manufacturing headquarters and up to 1100 new homes on 178ha at Ohinewai.

The Waikato Regional Council and New Zealand transport agency Waka Kotahi have cemented their earlier opposition to the development by lodging appeals with the Environment Court, after independent planning commissioners in May gave the green light to Sanson’s council rezoning the land to allow for it.

The parties have this month to resolve their concerns between them before the matter is scheduled for Environment Court-facilitated mediation.

Sanson, who along with the independent commissioners, has sharply criticised the regional council and transport agency for their attitudes to a development claimed to generate up to 2600 new jobs, $8.5b for the Waikato economy over 10 years and much-needed new housing, has, in his words, “banged heads together” to get the two regulators to the table.

He credits local Waka Kotahi manager David Spiers for constructive work with his agency “behind the scenes” and recently, regional council chief executive Chris McLay for getting things moving on that side.

“I contacted Chris two weeks ago to do a similar thing (to Spiers). They had externals acting for them, and the externals didn’t have the same degree of urgency or decision-making ability which made it a prolonged process.

“So Chris got involved and to his credit corralled things which had just got down to rats and mice (matters) in my opinion, that could easily have been solved.

“I understand they are very close to being solved now – it just needed a bit of leadership.”

A common concern for both appellants had been aspects of the “affordable housing” planned within the residential side of the development, Sanson said.

Inclusion of Government housing agency Kainga Ora in the discussions had helped, he said.

“They’re interested in the Ohinewai project. They understand what affordable housing is, they will be building affordable housing (there), so (we said) the rest of you don’t need to worry about this.

“That did satisfy Waka Kotahi but didn’t necessarily satisfy the regional council at that stage. But there’s been a lot more discussion and it’s smoothed things over.”

Another concern had been over public transport to serve the development.

Sanson’s council couldn’t do the normal business case for a transport service because the development didn’t exist yet. This issue had been resolved last week by the district council committing to implement a funding provision in its 2024 formal plan.

“That’s once we reach a threshold of houses and my understanding is they’ve settled on that being the first 500 houses.”

The district council has had a team almost fully dedicated to solving outstanding issues with The Comfort Group’s land rezoning application under the proposed new district plan, Sanson said.

“I also implemented through council a political team about 18 months ago to work with our staff and external legal support around the whole district plan to move things along quicker without having to report back to council … we work with this team to give just-in-time guidance which means effectively we can meet in a matter of hours rather than wait for another council meeting which can take six weeks and would be too slow.”

The political team comprises Sanson, the deputy mayor and three councillors.

Sanson may be feeling a little more confident on the progress of talks but not enough to cancel the court mediation date later this month.

“I’ve said yes, tell them we still need it. lf we can’t sort it out through November I want mediation as soon as possible.

“Hopefully we don’t need it. It is a backstop I put in there in case we couldn’t come to an agreement. I felt quite strongly the issues weren’t worthy of court time, ” said Sanson, who earlier called the appeals “nitpicking” and “bloodymindedness”.

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