Council chair fails in bid to ditch SNAs on West Coast

3:08 pm on 29 September 2021

West Coast Regional Council chairman Allan Birchfield has lost his bid to bar significant natural areas (SNAs) from private land.

The beautiful landscape of the southern island of New Zealand is a mountain range of lake forests.

(file pic) Photo: 123RF

Councils and iwi working on a new combined district plan for the region have been agonising for months over the legal requirement to identify SNAs.

The Tai o Poutini Plan Committee has refused to receive a report it commissioned that showed 25 percent of private land on the West Coast would qualify.

The issue came to a head at the plan committee meeting in Greymouth this week with two notices of motion by Birchfield to exclude all private land from SNA identification, and from the plan, along with all private land identified as "outstanding natural landscape".

But a formal legal opinion requested by the planning team has backed its view that not identifying and protecting SNAs in the plan would be unlawful.

The situation was a serious one for the Coast, Birchfield said.

"I initially thought it was 25 percent of private land that was in SNAs but I've just been informed it's 36 percent, so if you add on the outstanding natural landscapes and the 5000ha of wetlands that's been confiscated, this is a very big chunk of our private land on the West Coast."

Although it was said that landowners could get resource consent to use SNAs there was a lot of stress and cost involved, as the recent Barrytown mining hearing had shown, he said.

"They took three days just to try to get resource consents to do some mining. That's the situation landowners will potentially have to go through."

The Coast had already made its contribution to protecting significant natural areas with its national parks, Birchfield said.

WCRC chair Allan Birchfield at his Ngahere office - home of former Grey River gold dredge.

Allan Birchfield says the SNAs issue is serious for the West Coast. Photo: LDR / Lois Williams

'This is so undemocratic'

Westland Mayor Bruce Smith agreed: "The government is wanting to control land without writing a cheque ... the cost will be enormous; this is so undemocratic, it's disgraceful."

Buller Deputy Mayor Sharon Roche pointed out that the plan committee was required to give effect to the regional council's own regional policy statement, which was signed last year by Birchfield.

"That requires the identification of SNAs - perhaps the chair did not understand what he was signing, but it clearly says this."

It was sensationalism to call the process 'locking land up', Roche said.

"The cost to the ratepayer of defending an unlawful plan would be exorbitant. The Environment Court would end up making the decision and taking it out of our control."

Iwi representative Paul Madgwick said the legislation requiring councils to identify SNAs was "heinous."

But the planners' advice had been spot on and it was a shame they had had to get a legal opinion to confirm it.

"The blame rests with those in the Beehive, but it would be an abdication of our responsibility to put up a protest. It is unlawful for us not to do it.

"Much as I hate it, the wetlands (regional council court battles) cost the ratepayers a million dollars, and the outcome was the reverse of what we wanted."

In the fight to avoid designating wetlands on the West Coast, many landowners had been caught up unawares, and the Environment Court made the decision instead of the council.

"It increased the number of wetlands and ended up grabbing more than we envisaged."

The same thing could happen if the councils resisted designating SNAs, Madgwick warned.

"It's wrong. But for us to make a protest and lie down in front of the bulldozer all that's going to happen is that we'll get run over."

The mapped SNAs on the Coast should now be ground-truthed (physically inspected) because that would rule out many that were in fact nothing special, he said.

Read RNZ's explainer

SNAs: What you need to know

Obligations clear - mayor

Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine said as a landowner he found the SNA process unpalatable, but the plan committee now had a legal opinion and its obligations were clear.

"Our plan has to be legally defensible. We would not be serving the ratepayers well if we notified a plan that was unlawful before the ink was dry."

Greymouth Mayor Tania Gibson said she sympathised with Birchfield.

"Taking people's land is just not right. I have had landowners in tears who will lose 80 percent of the land; the politicians should come down and meet them."

Grey district councillor Anton Becker said he agreed, but it would take government intervention to bring the process to a halt.

Buller representative Laura Coll McLaughlin said she too sympathised with landowners.

"But we have to recognise we are a committee operating a legal process within a legal framework. It would be a mistake to make a courageous political decision within a legal process."

Birchfield's motion was lost when only four voted in support of it: Allan Birchfield, Bruce Smith, Tania Gibson and iwi representative Francois Tumahai.

Birchfield said all councillors were due for re-election next year and he was sure the voters would be watching the way they had voted on the SNA issue.

Te Tai o Poutini Plan Committee chairman Rex Williams noted the election campaign had not yet started.

"Yes it has; it started today," Birchfield said.

The committee now has to work on the rules for SNAs, what activities would be permitted, which ones would trigger a resource consent and which ones would be prohibited.

The next phase of the work as planned would involve visits by ecologists to potential SNAs to either verify their significance or discount them.

no metadata

Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.

Disclosure: Paul Madgwick is the editor of the Greymouth Star, which employs the LDR. He took no part in the commissioning, writing or editing of this story.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs