Plan Change 114 Landscapes

The Whangarei District Council (WDC) is at it again… more rules, more restrictions, and more reasons why you will have to go cap and wallet in hand to council when you want to do something on your private property.

By now many landowners would have received a letter from the WDC about “Plan Change 114 Landscapes”. This is a serious plan change that if adopted will have very detrimental effects on property owners with outstanding landscape or outstanding feature designations on their property. Most rural and lifestyle blocks on the coast will be affected, as are large parts of the rural area, and those with the natural features identified (there are 58 listed, including volcanic cones).

Effectively Plan Change 114 is the sequel to the extensive mapping exercise undertaken by the Northland Regional Council in 2012. That exercise, among other things, drew lines on the maps to create various “environments”, including outstanding landscapes, and outstanding features. It also drew a line to define the coastal area, which includes inlets and estuaries.

That process in itself was fraught and motivated by environmental activists like DoC’s advocacy department and the Environmental Defense Society. It is likely these groups will now be active in their submissions to Plan Change 114, seeking even more restrictive rules than those proposed. That’s why affected landowners need to get energised – if you don’t the radicals will be the only voice being heard and will get their way (and why I am part of the Landowners Coalition Inc which represents private landowners on private property rights issues).

Here are some of the things the draft policy says you can and can’t do – but first some jargon and costs.

In terms of the jargon, if an activity is permitted, there is no need to involve the council – you can do it as of right. If it is a discretionary activity it is up to the discretion of council planning staff under delegated authority to decide whether you can do it or not. If an activity is non-complying, it must be publically notified (advertised). That means any person, anywhere in New Zealand, can have their say about your proposal, including DoC, the Environmental Defense Society, iwi, and any busy-body who thinks they know better than you what you should do with your property.

Discretionary and non-complying activities require a resource consent. That starts with an application to council and payment of a $1,500 deposit on account (or $4,500 if public notification is required, as it would in the case in non-complying activities). In my experience, you would be lucky to get away with a cost of less than $5,000 for a simple consent and if an activity requires a hearing, then the cost could run into tens of thousands of dollars – the sky is the limit as hearings require experts, peer reviews by more experts, environmental lawyers, council-appointed commissioners, iwi consultation, stacks of papers, loads of meetings, and lots of waffle. None of that comes cheap and as the applicant, that cost falls upon you (including council’s costs and iwi consultation fees).

Here’s a quick summary of what the new rules say you can and can’t do.

New houses – Building a house on an outstanding landscape in the coastal area will no longer be a permitted activity. It will be treated as non-complying. Consent would be required, and that consent must be publically notified. Building a house in an outstanding landscape area but outside of the coastal area will be a discretionary activity. If council says no, you won’t be able to build. These restrictions will create serious uncertainty for anyone wanting to build in an area designated as an outstanding landscape.

Renovating a house – Alterations to an existing building in an outstanding natural area will only be permitted if the extension does not exceed 50m2 in area or exceed 20% of the existing floor area (whichever is the lesser), and the height does not increase.

Farm buildings – If your land is classed as an outstanding landscape and is within the coastal environment, a new accessory building (like farm sheds) would be permitted if the floor area is less than 25m2 and the colour has a “reflectance value no greater than 35%”. If your land is outstanding landscape but outside of the coastal environment new accessory buildings, like farm sheds, is permitted if the floor area is less than 100m2, and the colour has a “reflectance value no greater than 35%”, and the highest point of the building is not allowed to “project above the nearest ridgeline, knoll or peak when viewed from the nearest road, public reserve, or the coastal marine area.” (Clearly the council staff are concerned someone in a boat 500m from the coast may see the roof of a farm building!)

Earthworks – Earthworks will only be permitted in an outstanding natural area if the volume shifted is less than 150m2 (which is about 15 truck loads) and the affected area must be less than 150m2 in any 12 month period, and the height of the cut must not exceed 2m. If the earthworks exceed those limits and the land is inside the coastal area then the activity would be non-complying. If the limits are exceeded and the land is outside of the coastal area then the activity is discretionary.

Land clearing – Clearing indigenous vegetation is only permitted if the vegetation is a danger to humans or structures, or the clearance is undergrowth of a forestry operation, or it relates to a customary right, or is part of an ecological restoration project, and the affected area is less than 50m2. If the clearance exceeds those limits and the land is inside the coastal area then the activity would be non-complying. If the limits are exceeded and the land is outside of the coastal area then the activity is discretionary.

Pine forests – New pine forestry in an outstanding landscape area within the coastal zone would become a non-complying activity. New pine forests in an outstanding landscape outside of the coastal area would be a discretionary activity.

The message is very clear. Those who own land designated as outstanding landscape will be restricted on what they can do and most severely if it is within the coastal zone. They could not even build a house as of right – it would become a “non-complying” activity, which requires a resource consent application to the WDC, and payment of a $4,500 deposit. That application would be publically notified, giving anyone or group who think you should not build on your land the opportunity to object. Objectors are likely to include DoC, using taxpayer funds to do so.

So what can you do about it if you are affected?

1. The WDC has invited affected landowners to contact the council,”to discuss the possible implications for the use of your property…to arrange a site meeting on your property”. Every affected landowner should take up that invitation so a council staff member can show you where the line appearing on their map is on your property. Ask them to explain what you can and can’t do on your property, and how much it is likely to cost to go through the consent process. If you don’t know whether you are affected, ask the WDC to provide the maps relevant to your property.

2. Make a submission to the WDC so you are part of the process (you can always become part of a group action at a later date but you need to be part of the submission process from the outset). Submissions on the draft proposal must be in to the WDC by 20 May 2016.

3. Phone your local councillor. Ask, “What is your position on Plan Change 114?”.

4. It’s election year. Ask all candidates standing in your ward whether they support Plan Change 114, and whether they will stand up for private property owners and oppose it.

If you remain silent WDC staff and anti-property right groups will be the only voices expressing an opinion. Landowners who believe in private property rights need to make a stand. To do nothing is to lose.