Waikato mayor Allan Sanson says "nitpicking" and "bloodymindness" could see the proposed $1.3 billion Sleepyhead housing and manufacturing development dragged out another year if loose ends aren't tied off before a November date with the Environment Court.
The big project planned for Ohinewai by Sleepyhead brand owner The Comfort Group has the rezoning green light from independent commissioners appointed by Sanson's Waikato District Council. But arch opponents Waikato Regional Council and government roading agency Waka Kotahi, along with a private trust, have filed appeals in the Environment Court.
The plan, for new manufacturing headquarters for Australasia's biggest bed-making company which has outgrown its Auckland sites, and for up to 1100 homes on 178ha of marginal farming land, has been four years in the pipeline.
Commissioners said the project had the potential to provide more than 2600 jobs to the Waikato, affordable housing to the local workforce and to contribute an estimated $200 million a year to the local economy.
Sanson, who has championed the proposal, said his council has secured a November 20 date for an Environment Court-facilitated mediation.
But he wants the parties to resolve the legal points they've raised before then and has "banged heads together" to get everyone talking.
If the mediation fails the dispute will have to go to court, and the project could drag out another six months to a year, Sanson said.
He'd be equally frustrated if the appellants unnecessarily dragged out talks until November 20 only to withdraw their objections then.
"I've said to all parties I will be incredibly disappointed if we get to the point where the only way to solve this is through the court.
"That would just show how pathetic we are as a region. We have a little bit of time, but not a lot."
The appellants could not relitigate their opposition, they can only raise specific legal points, none of which are "gamestoppers", Sanson said.
The court wanted to move the case along "relatively quickly" and two Cabinet ministers, Housing Minister Megan Woods and Transport Minister Michael Wood, were "very interested" in progress.
"We've got two government agencies coming from opposing directions. One is trying to create housing and the other is making it difficult for that to happen.
"We've got planners from different organisations being bloodyminded and difficult I would suggest.
"Waikato Regional Council's been vehemently opposed throughout, mostly on the housing side. They've come back around issues to do with the living environment and getting what they think is a better outcome, and public transport and a few other bits and pieces. I'd suggest they don't know anything about where houses should go."
Waka Kotahi, also known as NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) had shown "a very keen interest in urban development, what it looks and feels like" throughout the process, Sanson said.
"[I say] that's not your flaming area of expertise - your expertise is about a bloody highway".
However he credits local NZTA leader David Spiers for showing a willingness to co-operate in discussions.
The agency in a statement said it would not be providing further comment while the appeal process is under way.
Sanson said his biggest concern is the attitude of the regional council.
"The regional council is charged with responsibility around economic development of this region. This is one of the biggest economic opportunities, which in itself and along with others that will follow, will ever happen in the Waikato."
He said council chairman Russ Rimmington was "just being bloodyminded and difficult".
He was also astounded at hearing from regional council staff the decision to appeal had been made by management, not councillors.
"It should have been a political decision. No council I know of ... would appeal a project of this magnitude without it being a political decision knowing there would be a [public] backlash."
Sanson claimed the regional council's second and third-tier management have been "delegated too much authority and power".
Rimmington in a statement said he couldn't say much with the matter before the court, and was surprised Sanson was making such comments when a legal process was under way.
"In our council, decisions on whether to appeal are made by executive staff in accordance with their delegations from council. It is these executives or their teams who will be appearing before the Environment Court, it if gets that far."
Rimmington said the council was progressing discussions with the Sleepyhead company "to hopefully reach a negotiated solution".
A third appellant to the commissioner's rezoning greenlight is the Ralph Estate, managed by the Public Trust Office.
Sanson said its claim that coal reserves in the area would be locked up by being built over were "rubbish".
"We looked at mining that area 20 years ago and came to the conclusion it was unmineable. For them to come back and say they feel they are going to lose out is absolute rubbish."
The Public Trust Office said it had no comment.
Sanson isn't alone in criticising the approaches taken by NZTA and the regional council to the Sleepyhead proposal.
In their 100-page decision, the independent commissioners took them to task, noting that central to their joint opposition were concerns the proposal was not anticipated by strategic planning documents and not in line with existing planning documents.
"Without wishing to be unduly critical, we consider those agencies have taken a narrow doctrinaire interpretation of the relevant strategic planning documents and have given little weight to the strong directions in the (National Policy Statement) for decision-makers to be responsive to development opportunities unanticipated by RMA planning documents," the commissioners said.
"We are disappointed the two public agencies took such entrenched positions to oppose the Ohinewai development proposal when a more constructive approach was called for when taking into account the significant benefits that could arise to the local area and region if the rezoning proposal were to be approved."
Sanson said all eyes were on the Sleepyhead Estate proposal because it had led to other community projects.
"We are working with (Government housing agency) Kainga Ora on a large project called 'Revitalisation of Huntly'. They have 220 houses in Huntly and are looking to revitalise those and provide affordable housing on some land there.
"They're also very interested in Ohinewai and building some of the houses they need in that area as well. Consequently I have [Cabinet] ministers very interested in this project."
Meanwhile, earthworks costing around $12m are under way on the development site, after the Minister for the Environment agreed resource consent applications to authorise stage one, a foam factory and rail siding, could be processed under the Government's Covid-19 fast-track consent process.
Earthworks consents were given by the district and regional councils.
Sanson said the aim is for construction to start on the foam factory in March and for it to be operational by the end of next year.
The Comfort Group has raised its own legal points in the appeals process but has declined to comment otherwise.
The company said its fast-track application is being "actively considered" by an expert panel appointed by the minister.