Wellington City Council Draft District Plan: Submission on SNAs

‘Nobody owns land’ (former Deputy Mayor Jill Day, 2019)

The Wellington City Council’s Draft District Plan presents the details of its Significant Natural Areas policy, including SNA designations on both private and public land.  It is a matter of deep concern that this initiative, which has huge implications for the rights of all Wellington property owners, has remained under the radar – to this day (four days before submissions close) very few members of the public are aware of it.

The Council claims authority from the Resource Management Act, Section 6, which provides that appropriate authorities:

‘shall recognise and provide for the following matters of national importance: […] (c) the protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna’.

I support:

  • The provisions of the RMA designed to protect important ecological features
  • A council policy that encourages the retention and nurturing of bush in the city.

However there is no relation between the provisions of the RMA to protect valuable fauna and habitats and the Council’s Significant Natural Area programme, rolled out in 2019 in the name of satisfying the requirements of 6(c).

Traditional Property Rights

The Council has designated some 160 SNAs, which include part or the whole of 1693 private properties, often but not always adjacent to existing reserves.  Once the District Plan has been finalised, homeowners:

  • Lose the right to use and enjoy their property as they wish
  • Suffer dramatic loss to the value of their property

The stated purpose of the RMA Act is to:

‘promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources [which] means managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while […] mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.’ (Section 5).

The only references to private land in the RMA are in relation to heritage orders and serve to underline the importance of property rights, e.g.

‘However, a heritage protection authority that is a body corporate approved under section 188 must not give notice of a requirement for a heritage order in respect of any place or area of land that is private land’.

The RMA, then, makes it very clear that while all measures should be taken to protect the natural environment, and especially indigenous flora of significance, the welfare of people and communities comes first.

Central government’s  2000, in force in 2019, emphasises, ‘Securing the willing and active participation of landowners is therefore pivotal to sustaining indigenous biodiversity on private land’ (p. 38)

The Legislation Guidelines (2021 edition), which have been adopted by Cabinet as the government’s key point of reference for assessing whether draft legislation is consistent with accepted legal and constitutional principles, recognise ‘respect for property’ as a fundamental constitutional principle:

‘New legislation should respect property rights. People are entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of their property […] The Government should not take a person’s property without good justification. A rigorously fair procedure is required and compensation should generally be paid’.

Wellington City Council, however, has launched an aggressive assault on traditional property rights, contrary to the spirit and letter of the RMA and other guidelines.  Furthermore the Council has indicated that it will not be paying compensation, generous or otherwise.

‘Significant’

According to Forest & Bird, SNAs are ‘New Zealand’s most important remnants of native habitat – places where rare or threatened plants or animals are still found’.   Except that they’re not  – at least not as designated in Wellington.  It is questionable whether there is anything significant or ‘of national importance’ on any of the private land affected, of a quality to justify trampling on traditional rights.  If there is anything special, it almost certainly has a covenant already.

At best the cover is regrowth on former farmland, some very recent as old, soil-robbing pines are removed.  Some of it is well-established and a pleasure to its owners.  On the other hand, much is very low grade – the Council website repeatedly refers to ‘bush and scrub’.  However the Council officer I spoke to at a walk-in session in Ngaio was adamant that regenerating bush constitutes ‘indigenous biodiversity of national significance’.

Many of the SNAs, furthermore, incorporate or consist of cover that has not the remotest claim to be of significance: garden shrubbery, toxic weeds, pine trees, agapanthus, lawn. The piece of my land designated as SNA consists in its entirety of: a mix of common natives and exotics along the roadside; woodshed, lawn, and a bank of tradescantia dotted sparsely with wild cherries and a very common native.  The designation puts paid to long-term plans to put in a drive, maybe double garage, granny flat or separate dwelling, and of course wipes several hundred thousand  dollars off the value of the property.

‘Protect’

The Council policy is designed in such a way that it will inevitably have poor outcomes:

1) The Council does not differentiate between virgin forest and scrub that self-seeded a couple of years ago – this is hardly the best way to ensure protection of flora that is rare and special.

2) Loss of good will:

The Greater Wellington Regional Policy Statement states: The restoration of ecosystems relies upon the good will and actions of landowners’.  Rather than working to engender good will and cooperation with landowners, by imposing restrictions on property without consent, the Council’s progamme serves to alienate them.

The Council is punishing people for loving nature – property owners are being conditioned to seeing native plants as a threat to their rights.  In Porirua, which has a programme serving a similar ideology, one landowner with several hectares of bush has reluctantly cleared two of them, and is contemplating clearing the rest.  I myself hoped to allow bush to regenerate on a piece of land which suddenly became fertile after the removal of a large macrocarpa.  Obviously I won’t be doing that now, but no matter – the Council will probably take the land anyway.

When SNAs are seen in conjunction with the Urban Development Act, Wellington residents with anything bigger than a golfer’s section – any who love the natural environment – are vulnerable to having their land taken from them, in the name of either biodiversity or development.

Claims that the Council is prepared to be accommodating are discredited – almost all of those who have contacted me have found council officers intractable. At least one property owner has spent $25,000 on an ecological report showing that his land did not constitute ‘significant indigenous biodiversity’, which was summarily dismissed by Council officers.

Public Land

The programme also has undesirable implications for the management of public land, incorporating much-loved parks and open-spaces. It took months for Council officers to agree to remove the SNA designation from Queens Park, Thorndon, after the local residents association contested it.  There is under consideration a proposal to extend the Southern Landfill – on land that is now designated an SNA.

Land in foreign ownership

The policy is in breach of trade agreements with regard to assets in foreign ownership.  Does the Singapore Embassy know that most of its site has been designated an SNA?

Lack of democracy

The Council rolled out its SNA initiative during the election campaign of 2019, with a feel-good letter on pretty paper in a pretty envelope, offering to help people with their ‘biodiversity’.  The fleeting reference to the need for a resource consent to make use of the land went unnoticed by the vast majority of affected landowners.  Most people who attended a public meeting in Khandallah in July this year were unaware of the policy.  It was not until the Council sent another letter spelling out the implications of the policy, two years after the initial rollout and just weeks before submissions on the Draft District Plan closed, that affected property owners throughout the city woke up to it.

There has been absolutely no effort to advise the general public of the Council’s policy on property rights – there should have been full-page advertisements in the Dominion Post.

No sitting candidate referred to the policy during the general election.

What’s it all about?

The function of Wellington City Council’s SNA programme is clearly NOT to identify and protect indigenous biodiversity of national importance as required by the RMA.  Rather, it is to normalise land expropriation and compulsorily rewild the city at the expense of property owners.

Recommendations

Wellington City Council’s Significant Natural Area policy is wrong in law and wrong in principle.  It is a worrying example of council overreach, while at the same time failing in its objectives of protecting significant biodiversity of national importance.

The criteria applied by Wildlands Consultants in its SNA designations are completely inappropriate – the designated SNAs do not constitute ‘significant indigenous biodiversity of national importance’.

The Council should, therefore:

1) Reject the report of Wildlands Consultants in its entirety, rescind its SNA policy, and remove all SNA designations from public and private land from the District Plan.  If the Council believes existing reserves and protections are inadequate they need to start again with a view to properly, honestly and fairly implementing the requirements of the Resource Management Act.

2) Apologise to affected landowners for the angst caused by this policy.

3) Reimburse affected landowners for any expense incurred in contesting the designations.

Barbara McKenzie
Wellington SNA Committee

(Submissions on the Draft District Plan close Tuesday, 14 November.)

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