Catholic Church victorious in Speargrass school scrap

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The Wakatipu’s rural Speargrass Flat Road can resound to the joyous laughter of 112 Catholic school kids, the Environment Court says.

In a just-released verdict, Judge Melanie Harland and two commissioners find in favour of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Dunedin in a neighbourhood planning battle dating back almost three years.

Several Speargrass Flat residents were appealing a Queenstown Lakes District Council decision granting land use consent for a satellite campus of jam-packed St Joseph’s School.

Two new buildings up to 5.5 metres high are planned for the site of the former Speargrass Flat Lodge – which burned down in 2006.

The new school will take Year 1-6 pupils from Arrowtown, Lake Hayes and the outer Wakatipu.

The 2.6ha site will include a playing field, hard-court area, 43-space carpark and a turning area for school buses.

The court verdict records how the planning application “attracted significant opposition from residents”.

Among residents staying the distance in the fight were sacked Queenstown Airport chairman Mark Taylor and wife Jane Taylor, a former QLDC planning commissioner.

Another opposition couple were Scott Figenshow and Norman Gray – the former is a QLDC senior policy analyst and the latter manages Lakes District Hospital.

Both Figenshow and Gray “vehemently opposed” the proposed school, the verdict says.

According to the verdict, Gray was “parish pastoral council chairman of St Josephs” when the decision was made in 2007 to investigate moving to Speargrass Flat.

Figenshow’s attitude in the witness box, the verdict says, displayed “no love lost between [him] and the Bishop’s representatives”.

Other opponents included former QLDC councillor and planning commissioner David Clarke, former QLDC planner Gemma Davis, major Skyline shareholder and director Philip Hensman, artist Brian Millard and accommodation agent Hayley Stevenson.

“Generally speaking,” the verdict says, “there was a level of mistrust about the Bishop’s future intentions in relation to the site expressed by some appellants.”

Three buildings rather than two popped up in preliminary site plans, the court noted.

The judgment delves deep into resource management law, including “sound level predictions for children playing” – which were found to be “appropriate”.

“Large numbers [of pupils] playing near the site boundary” will probably breach district plan noise limits, the court predicts, but this can be avoided “through appropriate management practices”.

Approached yesterday (Tuesday) about the verdict, St Josephs board chairman Rene Kampman is “delighted for the school and community”.

“I’m incredibly disappointed at how long the whole process has taken,” he adds.

Lead opposition lawyer Michael Parker says he’s only just received the verdict and has forwarded it to his clients. He’ll await instructions on any possible appeal.