Tauranga's mayor has questioned whether the city's political leanings counted against it after a plan to build a "shovel ready" marine research facility in the middle of a reserve was blocked.
But Conservation Minister Eugenie Sage says she totally rejects the idea, saying the decision has nothing to do with the election.
Sage has declined Tauranga City Council's bid to revoke the reserve status of a chunk of Sulphur Point's Marine Park Reserve, where the University of Waikato facility was to be built.
NZME learned of the Minister's decision yesterday morning and contacted the council, as well as her office and the university, for comment.
When contacted, neither council staff, Tauranga mayor Tenby Powell nor the university knew a decision had been made.
"We have no knowledge of this at all," Powell said. "Unbelievable."
The minister later apologised to Powell "for the fact that Tauranga City Council was not formally notified of my decision sooner".
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She told NZME she elected to make the decision herself rather than delegating it given the high level of public interest.
Sage said the key consideration was the value of the reserve rather than the merits of its intended use for the university facility.
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"There was no assessment of alternatives or reasons why the building had to occupy the reserve site rather than be built elsewhere in Tauranga," she said.
Other reasons for declining the application included majority public opposition to the proposal (58 per cent of submitters to the council) and the loss of "finite" coast-adjacent public open space in a growing city.
"Two of the three local iwi groups, Ngāi Tamawāwho and Ngāti Pukenga, were opposed to revocation of reserve status and there were a significant number of public submissions which also opposed revocation."
The two iwi groups, however, withdrew their opposition yesterday and have asked the Minister to revisit her decision.
Iwi representative Buddy Mikaere said the change of position came after urgent talks between the two iwi groups, the council and the university yesterday, after being surprised by the Minister's decision.
Powell said Minister's decision was disappointing.
"I'm just stunned at how a shovel-ready project of this nature with the economic benefits this is going to produce, the jobs it is going to produce - putting Tauranga on the map to reinforce our ability to engage in globally recognised marine science - has been flipped upside down for a piece of grass dedicated to the parking of a whole lot of boat trailers."
He said the project would provide an estimated 250 jobs during construction and, once built, would have a research centre staff of 40 and serve 65 PhD and Masters researchers.
"We could have started literally immediately. It's been sitting around on the Minister's desk for a long, long time. We've been pushing for an answer for ages."
While he would not say whether the council would challenge the decision, he hinted at suspicions Tauranga's political leanings may have been a factor.
"It's an election year, you know what I mean by that?," Powell said.
"We just want a marine research centre and I want to try to keep out of any politics that might be at play here. We recognise that Tauranga might be up against some pretty big hurdles given the nature of the blue seat," Powell said, referring to the fact that Tauranga is a safe National seat.
"It is what it is. I would hate to think this is a salvo fired at the Tauranga City Council and the University of Waikato on that basis. I'd hate to think that is the case but we're concerned that, put it this way, there's a number of people who hold that belief. I'm not one of them."
Sage said she totally rejected Powell's comments.
"The decision had nothing to do with the election nor the merits or not of Waikato University's proposal. It was based solely on the Reserved Act and the value of the reserve.
"I hope they find another suitable site for the building."
The university established a Coastal Marine Field Station in Tauranga in 2011 with help from local authorities and education providers. It focussed on marine-based research for pharmaceutical and agrichemical innovation.
It has since trebled in size due to demand.
In 2016 the university approached the council for help finding land for a multimillion-dollar new marine research and education facility.
Multiple options at Sulphur Point were considered - favoured due to its vicinity to the university's Tauranga CBD campus and the quality of seawater - as was old cargo shed site on Dive Crescent.
Last year the parties narrowed down to a 6952sq m section next to the grassed overflow car and trailer park in Marine Park Reserve, Sulphur Point.
If the reserve status was revoked, the council would give the university a long-term lease for the land to allow for the build.
The facility was envisioned as a two- to three-storey building with yard space and carparks, housing specialist laboratories, teaching and public engagement spaces.
The land represented about 7 per cent of the 112,000sq m area of the harbourside reserve.
Public feedback on the proposal was split 58 per cent against and 42 per cent for in council consultation at the end of 2018.
In August last year, the council agreed to apply to the Minister for the revocation.
The university declined to comment yesterday, saying it needed more time to review and consider the implications of the decision.
NZME has also sought comment from the council about what the next steps would be for the project.