‘We are all guns blazing’: Sleepyhead Estate developer family now holding breath for no appeals

Elated Sleepyhead company director Craig Turner will go to the Environment Court if opponents of his company’s $1.2 billion development plan at Ohinewai appeal against agreen light just given by independent commissioners.

In a 100-page decision that sharply criticised opponents the Waikato Regional Council and transport agency Waka Kotahi, commissioners approved a rezoning of rural land in the north Waikato to pave the way for the development of manufacturing headquarters for Australasia’s largest bedding manufacturer and up to 1100 houses.

Opponents have until July 12 to appeal against the decision.

Turner, whose family owns The Comfort Group, umbrella company for the Sleepyhead, SleepMaker and Dunlop Foams brands, said as resistance to the 178ha rezoning focused on the residential part, not the industrial aspect, he hoped opponents would now see the benefits of the development and “get past that type of thinking”.

“We feel an appeal is unlikely against the industrial piece, but if they do we will take it through to the Environment Court and let the judge decide.”

The hearing panel of commissioners, appointed by the Waikato District Council, took the regional council and transport agency to task, noting that central to their joint opposition were concerns that the proposal was not anticipated by strategic planning documents and not in line with existing planning documents.

“Without wishing to be unduly critical, we consider those agencies have taken a narrow doctrinaire interpretation of the relevant strategic planning documents and have given little weight to the strong directions in the (National Policy Statement) for decision-makers to be responsive to development opportunities unanticipated by RMA planning documents.

“We are disappointed the two public agencies took such entrenched positions to oppose the Ohinewai development proposal when a more constructive approach was called for when taking into account the significant benefits that could arise to the local area and region if the rezoning proposal were to be approved.”

Waikato Regional Council said it will consider whether to appeal.
Mayor Russ Rimmington said the two agencies had acknowledged the industrial development may have significant economic benefits.

“We recognise there will always be a need to be responsive in how the region uses and develops its land, you can’t predict everything. This is exactly why the Regional Policy Statement provides flexibility so long as the reasons for doing so are sufficiently compelling and the costs acceptable.

“We agreed with the panel that the positives outweigh the negatives when it comes to the industrial components of the proposal – the economic and employment opportunities created could be of great benefit to the local community.”

However the council disagreed that allowing housing in places that would exacerbate car dependency and, in this case risk undermining the rejuvenation of Huntly, was a good outcome, Rimmington said.

Waka Kotahi said it would fully assess the decision before determining any further action. The agency’s joint submission with the council opposed the rezoning request on several grounds, including concerns about the potentially significant impact of the development on the Waikato Expressway.

The commissioners said having considered carefully all the evidence and competing submissions “we are left in no doubt that the … proposal should provide significant economic, social and employment benefits to the Huntly/Ohinewai area and wider Waikato region.

“There is the potential to provide over 2600 jobs to the Waikato region, to provide affordable housing to the local workforce and to contribute an estimated $200 million per annum into the local economy.”

The panel was also satisfied the effects of the development and its impact on infrastructure services could be appropriately managed through the prescriptive set of planning provisions it had approved.

Earthworks on the marginal farming land are already under way, after the Minister for the Environment agreed that resource consent applications to authorise the planned foam factory and rail siding on the site could be processed under the Government’s Covid-19 fast track consent process.

Those resource consents have since been obtained.

Turner, who leads the project with his brother Graeme, said construction on the factory was planned to start in early 2023 with occupation mid-2024.

He told the Herald the company had spent $4m on consultants and legal costs in the three-year planning journey to this point, excluding the price and holding costs of the land.

“We’ve learned a lot. ‘Naivete’ is the word I would use for when I first thought about this.

“We’ve never done anything like this in our lives before and we thought it would be a relatively straightforward process to turn a farm into a factory.

“It’s not for the fainthearted.”

The earthworks were already providing jobs for up to 14 local people and around half a dozen locals were being transported daily to Auckland for work in one of the group’s factories.

“So local employment has started and the wash-through on this thing for the area is going to start in earnest now,” said Turner.

“We are all guns blazing. We are building a factory now because the fast-track process is likely to get us where we want to be.”

The Comfort Group’s manufacturing sites at Avondale and Otahuhu are operating beyond capacity. They suffer from significant site and transport restrictions and are generally no longer fit for purpose, the company said.

The new Ohinewai site, to be called the Sleepyhead Estate and adjacent to SH1 and the North Island main rail line, would allow the group to consolidate and expand.

The residential plan incorporates affordable housing for the company’s staff, many of whom Turner has said cannot afford Auckland housing.

There will be more residential land than Sleepyhead needs and some could be available to other industrial, warehouse or logistics operators wanting to set up in Ohinewai, he said.

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