Councillors who voted to forge ahead with mapping significant natural areas (SNAs) on the West Coast are likely to lose their seats at the next election in retaliation, regional council chairman Allan Birchfield says.
His dire prediction follows last week's meeting of councils and iwi working on the new combined Te Tai o Poutini Plan for Westland, Grey and Buller, and Cr Birchfield's failed bid to exclude SNAs on private land.
Professional planners working on the combined plan have been warning for months that by law the councils cannot avoid identifying and protecting significant natural areas.
But the planners sought a legal opinion after the committee previously refused to accept research it had commissioned, when a desktop study showed 25 percent of private land in the region would be classed as SNA.
Most of the SNAs are areas of remnant native podocarp forest on lowland farms.
The opinion from prominent law firm Wynn Williams was unequivocal: the new plan must include SNAs, and they must be identified using the criteria set out in the West Coast's own regional policy statement.
The new district plan has to give effect to that policy, and comply with the Resource Management Act.
"If the committee does not undertake the mapping and identification process itself and engage in this conversation with the community through its draft plan and hearing process, then the Environment Court will identify the areas required to be protected," Wynn Williams advised.
"It will also determine the rules that apply to activities within SNAs."
The same applied to "outstanding natural areas" which councils must also identify and protect.
Councils could not get around the SNA requirement by simply writing rules on felling native trees, the lawyers advised.
"Vegetation clearance provisions alone would not meet the requirements of the RMA. The Environment Court has previously held that it is mandatory to identify these areas."
But having SNAs will not mean "people can't do anything with their land", the lawyers advised.
"In the New Plymouth case, the court noted perceptions that SNAs were untouchable and identification was equivalent to property theft, and overstated the effect of rules."
The rules could permit some activities as long as the area was protected and resource consent could still be granted to clear bush or disturb the ground in an SNA, Wynn Williams noted.
In the discussion that followed, several members of Te Tai o Poutini Committee (TTPP) warned that defying the law would inevitably land the councils in court, costing West Coast ratepayers millions of dollars.
That would be a costly repeat of what happened when the West Coast Regional Council tried to avoid listing wetlands, a few years back.
Not only did the court enforce the listing of wetlands, it added many others to the list and the landowners involved missed out on the chance to submit the objections they could have made if the council had done the job.
Wedged between a rock and a pragmatic hard place, the TTPP committee gave Cr Birchfield's motions the thumbs down, with Westland mayor Bruce Smith, Greymouth mayor Tania Gibson and iwi representative Francois Tumahai his only supporters.
But the regional chairman is not resigned to defeat and later scoffed at the legal opinion.
"It's only one opinion. You could probably get another one with a different view if you tried."
Regional council acting chief executive Heather Mabin said the SNA outcome was an example of democracy working.
"The TTPP committee is following a mandated process," Mabin said.
"Council staff are doing exactly as they should, by considering aspects of central government legislation that must be applied when drafting the plan and seeking expert opinions when necessary."
Staff had also drafted the notices of motion for Cr Birchfield in an attempt to exclude SNAs on private land, after his first attempt last month was ruled out of order.
The motion was defeated 6-4 at last week's meeting.
TTPP committee chairman Rex Williams said the law firm had been selected to advise on the SNA process because of its ability, experience and pedigree, and there was no reason to second-guess its opinion.
The next step in the SNA process was to have been for ecologists to inspect (ground-truth) the areas identified in the research maps to check they were worth protecting.
But that would not be happening yet, Williams said.
"We have to discuss this further but the preference at this stage is to have large scale maps that don't show individual properties, and to manage the protection of flora and fauna with vegetation clearance rules."
The opinion offered by Wynn Williams said a large-scale map could be appropriate, as long as it was clear enough to show people whether they were undertaking an activity in an SNA.
"However, we question the utility of identifying SNAs and not providing rules specifically to restrict activities in those areas."
General indigenous vegetation rules would need to meet the high thresholds required for protecting SNAs and that could be "very onerous" for other landowners wanting to clear vegetation, the law firm warned.
Local Democracy Reporting is a public interest news service supported by RNZ, the News Publishers' Association and NZ On Air.
Greymouth Star editor Paul Madgwick represents Ngāti Māhaki ki Makaawhio on the TTPP committee. He took no part in the commissioning, writing or editing of this LDR story.