By E McGruddy, Senior Policy Adviser, FFNZ
Some readers may have been on the receiving end of frightening letters from their regional council. It’s the letters that invite you to come to a meeting, you may wish to bring your lawyer with you, and be aware that if you’ve done what we think you’ve done, you could be up for a $600,000 fine.
Some of you may have been brave enough to ask what rule did you break? Remembering that the rule book is hundreds of pages and what’s in it is a moving feast.
If there is a rule, and you’ve broken it, that’s a fair cop. Don’t do that bad thing again, and put right whatever damage you’ve done.
Sometimes, however, the transgression is not quite so clear-cut. You almost have to squint your eyes and look at a rule sideways to figure out what it means. Case in point are the rules about wetlands – is it a wetland or a wet paddock? We’ll come back to that one.
These are the tricky cases and it’s a brave individual who takes on the might of a regional council. They wrote the rule book after all, and they have lawyers and scientists to back them up. Plus you need money. If you really want to argue the toss, you can’t just open and close your mouth. You need your own lawyers and scientists. Practically speaking, the odds are you either roll over, or lose.
This context may help account for the astonishing sequence of events in a recent Environment Court case.
In 2020, one of the councils in the Wairarapa approved a subdivision of part of a farm into residential blocks. The sections were duly sold, and the new owners started building.
In 2021, GWRC (Greater Wellington Regional Council) asked the Environment Court to overturn that approval, claiming that 15 hectares of the subdivision was wetland, and that therefore those owners should not be building houses, installing septic tanks, running stock, or maybe even mowing the lawns.
In another odd twist, having claimed that the 15 hectares was ‘wetland’, GWRC also sought that the new owners be required to restore said area to ‘wetland’. Yes, it’s a mind-bender. The judge couldn’t figure it out either.
Clearly there’s a lot at stake here. As the Court decision described it, GWRC was seeking the retrospective imposition of draconian restrictions.
The respondents – the local council, the developer, the new landowners – were mystified. To their eyes, the area was grass with a few rushes and a bit of buttercup: they saw pasture, not wetland. So in this case, the respondents did not roll over. They said ‘see you in court” and turned up with their ranks of lawyers and scientists.
But here’s another interesting twist: GWRC only turned up with a skinny crew. On this occasion, they were the ones opening and closing their mouths because they hadn’t done their homework.
The judge told GWRC their case failed by a “massive margin”. The Court instructed GWRC to explain why they should not now meet the costs of all concerned in this sorry saga.
The Court decision runs to 100 odd pages, but perhaps the two best lines come from two of the independent experts called by the respondents. One talked about going down “rabbit holes”; and the other questioned why – if we need dozens of pernickety tests to figure out if that paddock we are looking at is pasture or wetland – why are we even going there.
That question might resonate with more than one reader.
How is it that GWRC came to commit ratepayer money to such an odd crusade? That is for GWRC to sort out, and doubtless debriefs are happening as we speak.
What does Federated Farmers think about it? This is not the way. GWRC has many good staff in the Wairarapa working alongside farmers and catchment groups. This nonsense has been run out of Wellington and it does nothing but detract from the good work GWRC is doing on the ground on this side of the Remutakas.
As it happens, GWRC has commenced of review of its compliance monitoring and enforcement programme, which was last reviewed in 2018. We congratulate them for that; it’s timely and useful. The case we mentioned in this column isn’t the only one in which farmers have received intimidating letters.
We have said it to GWRC before and we will say it again: prune the rules and beef up the partnerships. Practical policies and strong relationships will best serve agriculture and the council going forward.