It was compared to half a cake that might prove indigestible - but Horizons Region councillors have agreed to notify a proposed change to the council's intensive farming rules.

For two years the council has been considering how to change its One Plan rules on consent for intensive farming - defined as dairy, cropping, horticulture and irrigated sheep and beef farming.

In 2017 environment groups Fish & Game and the Environmental Defence Society took it to the Environment Court. They said it was allowing dubious intensive farming practices, with only a promise of improvement, and the court agreed. Horizons was told to enforce the nitrogen leaching limits in its plan - limits many intensive farmers cannot meet.

The plan change councillors voted for will increase the maximum nitrogen leaching limits, in line with the latest Overseer computer model. But strategy and regulation manager Nic Peet said it won't mean more nutrient leached to waterways.

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Businesses that still can't reach the limits may be able to get consent by proving they are reducing the phosphorous, E. coli and sediment they release.

Nic Peet: Proposal 'won't mean more nutrient leaching'. Photo / File
Nic Peet: Proposal 'won't mean more nutrient leaching'. Photo / File

Only councillors David Cotton, Bruce Rollinson and Colleen Sheldon voted against notifying the change. But all the others had worries about supporting it.

Cotton worried it would have Horizons back before the Environment Court. The environment groups have not agreed to it, and could appeal it.

"We're going through the same process, and expecting a different result," he said.

Some stakeholders had expected another plan change to be notified at the same time - a change to rules for land converted to new intensive uses. But Horizons policy and strategy manager Rebecca Tayler said that was "the other half of the cake" and needed more science and discussion.

Plan change 2 sticks to existing understandings within the One Plan, and Peet said it wouldn't be like changing a chocolate cake for an orange cake. Any big change would take too long, and farmers need certainty.

Horowhenua councillor Lindsay Burnell worried about vegetable growers in his district, who have never been able to meet the nitrogen leaching limits. He feared the change would cost jobs and put people out of business.

It could do more than that, council chairman Bruce Gordon said. It could reduce the supply of fresh vegetables by 65 per cent.

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But Tayler and Peet said horticulture was getting more environmentally savvy, and growers were talking about ways to work together to mitigate their effects.

The plan change isn't perfect, Whanganui councillor Nicola Patrick said, but the "half cake" approach is needed to get farmers out of "no man's land" - and the cost is the cost of doing business.

Wiremu Te Aweawe: We have to be the taniwha and clean up our waters. Photo / File
Wiremu Te Aweawe: We have to be the taniwha and clean up our waters. Photo / File

Palmerston North councillor Wiremu Te Aweawe didn't like upsetting people, but voted for the change.

"Whether we like it or not we are going to have to be the taniwha and do the job that was given to us, and clean up our waters," he said.

There was too much discretion about the farm practices given consent last time, councillor Rachel Keedwell said. She feared it could happen again with this "flexible" approach.

"I've been told many times that it will not happen again. That leaves me feeling I'm being asked to trust. I would prefer a prescriptive approach, but I will trust, and more eyes will be watching this time."

Plan Change 2 will be notified on July 22, and out for submissions until October 21. After that submissions will be heard by an independent commissioner and if the plan is agreed to - not appealed - it will be approved in mid 2020.

As soon as it is notified farmers will be able to apply for consents - which will be considered under a mixture of the old and new rules.