An attempt to curb liquor sale hours and reduce the harm caused by alcohol in the Far North has been abandoned due to fears lawyers' bills of more than $180,000 so far will keep climbing.
Far North District councillors voted narrowly this week to ditch the Local Alcohol Policy which had been in development for the past four years.
Had it gone ahead it would have barred new liquor outlets in sensitive locations, such as close to playgrounds and churches, and cut alcohol sale hours from the current 7am-11pm to 9am-10pm.
The move to abandon the policy has been met with dismay by campaigners for tighter alcohol controls but welcomed by the hospitality industry.
It spurred one councillor to brand the law governing local alcohol policies as ''stupid'' because it allowed big business to use the courts to overturn council decisions based on the wishes of the community.
The decision may have repercussions in Whangarei, where the council has mooted a more restrictive policy with off-licence hours cut to 9am-9pm. That has also been appealed but has yet to reach court.
Following an appeal in December by the two big supermarket chains, liquor retailers and Kaikohe pensioner Shaun Reilly, the Alcohol Regulatory and Licensing Authority ordered the Far North District Council to take its provisional Local Alcohol Policy back to the drawing board. The supermarkets had argued the policy was too restrictive, Mr Reilly that it wasn't restrictive enough.
At last Wednesday's council meeting in Kaikohe, staff recommended tweaking the policy, as agreed with the appellants and the Health Ministry, and adjusting the maximum off-licence opening hours to 7am-10pm. That would have kept the current opening time but brought back closing by one hour.
However, Councillor Ann Court said there was no guarantee the policy wouldn't be appealed again. So far it had cost ratepayers $180,240 in lawyers' fees alone, and carrying on when the council couldn't prove its case was futile.
Everyone knew that alcohol caused harm but proving in court that it could be reduced by cutting off-licence hours was a different matter.
Abandoning the policy wouldn't take away anyone's democratic rights because people could still have a say whenever someone applied for a liquor licence, she said.
Councillor Dave Hookway said around the country councils had ''found themselves in the insidious position of fighting a stupid law'' which allowed a council decision to be appealed in court. He wanted the policy adopted with the changes agreed to by the appellants.
The motion to abandon the policy was carried 5-4.
The public gallery was packed during a sometimes acrimonious debate in which various councillors accused each other of conflicts of interest.
Jane Johnston, who assisted Mr Reilly in his campaign for reduced opening hours, said the decision to bin the policy had ''come out of the blue''.
''We're gutted. This process has cost us a lot of time, effort and money ... We didn't win everything but we'd made good progress. Now they've thrown it all out.''
The campaign would now have to focus directly on the suppliers, she said.
However, John Maurice, owner of Kaikohe's Bank Bar and Northland chairman of Hospitality NZ, said it was the right decision.
Existing legislation was enough to control alcohol sales and no ratepayer wanted to see yet more money spent on lawyers.
It would not lead to open slather but would give more ''room to move'' with opening hours in tourist spots such as Paihia.
In any case the problems were not caused by on-licences, Mr Maurice said.
''People are better off being in an on-licence than going to an off-licence and grabbing a couple of slabs.''
People could still voice their concerns any time a liquor licence came up for renewal, he said.
Kaikohe pastor Mike Shaw, who is campaigning for tighter alcohol regulation, said the decision was ''very disappointing''.
It appeared councillors believed avoiding court action outweighed their obligation to listen to the community, he said.
A law passed in 2012, the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, gave councils the right to set local rules around liquor sales. It was the result of concern in places like South Auckland about the proliferation of bottle stores.
Most attempts so far to create local alcohol policies, however, have become mired in legal action.
■ In the Far North case the appellants were Progressive Enterprises (Countdown), Foodstuffs (Pak N Save, New World, Four Square), The Mill, Independent Liquor, Hospitality NZ, and Shaun Reilly. In Whangarei they are Foodstuffs, Progressive Enterprises and Ignition Group (Super Liquor).