Horizons Region councillors have voted unanimously to investigate changing one contentious aspect of their One Plan.
That aspect is nutrients leaching to water, especially the amount of nitrogen leached per hectare per year. The plan sets 30kg as a maximum but many Tararua dairy farms leach twice that amount, and market gardeners can leach five times it.
A plan change could take years. With no firm decision made, farmers remain in limbo.
Horowhenua councillor Lindsay Burnell feared for market gardeners in his patch. He said cauliflowers cost $2.99 but could be $12-$15 under those leaching limits.
"It's extremely doubtful that any horticulture in the Horowhenua could get a consent under this process. In my view, that wasn't what the plan anticipated," Horizons' policy and regulatory manager Nic Peet said.
No new intensive horticulture in the region anywhere would get consent, and neither would a new dairy conversion.
It was a packed strategy and policy committee meeting on Wednesday, with 280 pages of information to consider.
The council must follow the Environment Court's April declarations, which said One Plan nitrogen leaching limits must be enforced. Councillors were told 50 to 95 per cent of intensive farmers couldn't meet them.
Staff have revised the consent process to meet the court's declarations. Applicants now need to provide an assessment of environmental effects, including cumulative effects.
The revised process is "very prescriptive", "a seismic shift" and "almost impossible for individual farmers", councillors were told. It will be more expensive, requiring science and planning input as well as consultants.
A few can simply meet the leaching table. For those having low impact, a lot of poorer land or an ability to improve short-term, consent might be granted. Others would have no chance.
A plan change, of a type yet to be decided, was the way out of the impasse.
It could take two to four years, and be appealed, advisor Rob van Voorthuysen said.
He suggested council undertake a catchment-wide assessment of environmental effects, with landowners helping pay for it. It would be difficult and expensive for individual farmers to produce the assessment themselves.
What to do in the meantime? The activities of 180 dairy farmers and 20 market gardeners who have applied for consent will continue and be "unauthorised".
The council could be legally challenged if it doesn't start issuing consents, and also if it issues consents inconsistent with the court's declarations.
It's getting legal advice from prosecutor Ben Vanderkolk.
What to do in the meantime perturbed councillors Nicola Patrick and Rachel Keedwell. Ms Patrick said the situation was unfair because some farmers don't yet have consent and may not get it, while others have consent to leach a lot.
She said rural stakeholders have been consulted, but not iwi or environmentalists.
Both said the council was overly defensive and risked appearing to give economic impact too much weight in its decisionmaking.
Ms Keedwell asked what kind of plan change was envisaged. Based on the council's approach so far, she feared the goal would be "a bare minimum reduction of nitrogen leaching".
All the councillors agreed to investigate plan change options, a decision that could be overturned by full council.