It cost Waka Kotahi nearly a quarter of a million dollars to prove that LED billboards next to one of the country’s most dangerous highways are a bad idea. Photo / 123RF
It cost the state highway agency almost $250,000 to prove that LED billboards next to one of the country’s most dangerous highways are not a good idea.
But the businessman who has gone to court several times trying to change his static billboards to digital ones says authorities need to move with the times.
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency ultimately won the fight, after several legal hurdles, and now finds itself with the lion’s share of the $240,000 bill after the contesting company was ordered to pay just $60,000 for the cost.
Wellington firm Prime Property Group Ltd had been trying to get permission to replace existing conventional billboards with internally lit LED billboards next to part of the road national road, between Ngaraunga and Petone.
Prime Property already had resource consent for four large billboards at this location – one facing northbound traffic at one end, another facing southbound traffic at the other end, and two further billboards shaped of V in the middle, all illuminated by lights at the top.
The head of the property company, Eyal Aharoni, told Open Justice he wanted them changed because static signs were a thing of the past. He said printing the big screen “skins” and replacing them, which required heavy equipment, meant the format was no longer sustainable.
“Changing them is a risky business, especially in windy locations. Digital signs, on the other hand, can be changed remotely at the push of a button.”
Prime initially sought to have his consent amended. It was turned down by a board-appointed commissioner in October 2020. The company appealed and a year later was heard by the Environmental Tribunal, which also rejected the bid.
The court said the onus of defending the ruling fell almost entirely on Waka Kotahi, who spent the money mostly on legal fees and expert witnesses to respond to the appeal.
An agency spokesperson told Open Justice that the proposal was rejected on security grounds.
The environmental tribunal agreed with the commissioner, for the same reasons – the potential danger to drivers on an already dangerous stretch of road.
The northbound lane of the stretch of highway from Ngaraunga to Petone was in the top 10% of road networks with the highest number of fatalities and serious injuries in the country, according to evidence presented to the environmental court.
It also had to take into account the safety of cyclists, who were only a small group of users of the stretch of road, but who were more vulnerable in the event of a collision.
Aharoni told Open Justice that the company had offered to reduce the number of signs if the consent was changed to allow LED signs and to provide a bike lane at its own expense along the boundary of its site.
The Environmental Tribunal said that while drivers of passing vehicles watched and thought about the advertisements on the billboard, they were not paying full attention to the task of driving safely on a stretch of road that was one of the most dangerous roads in the country, the environmental tribunal said.
Don’t be discouraged, Prime Property did not accept the ruling and appealed to the High Court, on five suggested errors of law.
The High Court dismissed the appeal in June this year, on the grounds that there had been no error of law.
In his decision, Judge Francis Cooke said the Environmental Tribunal and the Commissioner had both decided that LED billboards were more inconvenient for drivers on a section of road considered dangerous, and the request was rejected on this basis.
“It was not a complicated question and the decision was clearly open to the environmental court.
“The suggestion that the decision involved errors of law is contrived. None of the grounds of appeal are established,” Judge Cooke said.
Aharoni told Open Justice that Waka Kotahi seemed eager to stop the activity of the digital signs, even though he was using them himself, in the belief that they were a driver distraction.
“Digital signs are commonly used in most countries around the world and I don’t think there is strong evidence to support Waka Kotahi’s view.
“Contradicting evidence was provided during the hearing by various experts and the court decided to take a cautious approach by Waka Kotahi, which is understandable,” Aharoni said.
In a recent decision on costs, Environment Judge Craig Thompson and Environment Commissioner David Bunting said that in fact the commissioner’s original decision had been upheld by two separate courts that came to same conclusion – that the decision was based on a correct interpretation of the law and was supported by evidence.
They also noted that while there was no presumption that a winning party would be awarded costs, Prime objected to paying them.
Waka Kotahi did not seek reimbursement of the full amount he spent, but a contribution of $60,000.
Thompson and Bunting said traffic management and safety were “absolutely central” to the merits of the application. It was because the proposal seemed likely to increase traffic hazards and risks that the application was rejected in the first place.
“This means that Prime Property Group Limited had before it a reasoned decision at first instance, issued by an expert in the field after hearing all parties.”
Prime also argued, in its opposition to Waka Kotahi’s request, that the agency did not need two attorneys to appear.
“This argument might have had more weight had Prime himself not also had two attorneys at this hearing.”
Aharoni said the $60,000 order has now been paid to Waka Kotahi.