KiwiRail Freight Center flaws unlikely to derail project

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KiwiRail's plans for new freight stations and distribution facilities remain flexible as commissioners review conditions.

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KiwiRail’s plans for new freight stations and distribution facilities remain flexible as commissioners review conditions.

KiwiRail’s plans for new freight stations and a distribution center on the outskirts of Palmerston North are filled with information gaps.

But city council lawyer Nicholas Jessen did not advise commissioners handling the case to designate 177 hectares for the project that the flaws could derail the project.

Commissioners hear KiwiRail’s notice of demand to take the land, but their powers are limited to making recommendations and setting conditions rather than denying it.

KiwiRail intends to seek resource consent as a second step in the process, an approach Jessen said was not standard, but not that unusual.

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It was difficult for the officers responsible for the council report to provide comprehensive advice on the effects that the large infrastructure project would have on the environment and the community, and on the possibility of managing these effects.

All the commissioners could do, he said, was to examine whether there was a viable path for KiwiRail to obtain consents.

They had to ask themselves if there were “potential road obstacles on the track”.

One of the poorly detailed areas was ecological effects, where there was disagreement among experts over whether culverts and stormwater retention ponds could replace natural streams and ponds.

Noise from the construction and operation of the rail hub was one of the biggest issues for the bidders, Jessen said, and they had made statements that were both intelligent and emotional.

He said that for many people who would become neighbors, KiwiRail’s proposal to provide insulation to the house and expect residents to close their windows at night would not be acceptable.

Jessen suggested that the commissioners recommend that KiwiRail offer to purchase the properties adjacent to the designation boundary for those who could not stand the noise.

This would be in line with KiwiRail’s responsibilities to be a good neighbor, he said.

Another information gap was the lack of an assessment of the cultural impact of mana whenua.

Jessen said that the absence of this report was significant, but that he “refused” to recommend what the Commissioners should do about it.

The very foundations of KiwiRail’s naming powers were disputed earlier in the hearing by authors Aaron Fox and Joanne Whittle.

They said he should only designate land for the operation of the railway line, and taking land for distribution sheds for others was beyond his reach.

Jessen, however, said that while some of the proposed activities are “reasonably removed from the literal meaning of a railway line,” Commissioners might conclude that these additional facilities were necessary for the efficient functioning of modern rail operations.

Fox and Whittle also claimed that KiwiRail’s choice of a site for the freight hub was predetermined in its application to the Provincial Growth Fund, which provided a $ 40 million grant for the planning and acquisition of land for the project.

But Jessen said all KiwiRail has to do is show that it has performed an “adequate” review of the alternative sites.

He didn’t need to be “exhaustive or meticulous” and he said there was no evidence that KiwiRail had been dishonest in the process.

The hearing is expected to continue Thursday and possibly Friday with Palmerston North-based attendees able to attend in person, and those restricted by Covid-19 alert levels appearing virtually.

KiwiRail will provide its right of reply later in October.


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