Environment Court halts development

The Environment Court and the Queenstown Lakes District Council have halted further development of a controversial piece of land above the Clutha River at Hawea Flat.

An interim enforcement order was issued by the Environment Court yesterday and served on farmer Dugald Innes, as respondent, and the council, following an application by the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society on Friday.

Mr Innes had cleared native vegetation and ploughed the land, which has been assessed by government departments as having high conservation values. His actions were deemed illegal by Forest and Bird.

The court order prevents Mr Innes from further clearance of indigenous vegetation as defined by the Queenstown Lakes district plan, or from watering, irrigating, oversowing or top-dressing any part of the subject land.

Environment Court Judge John Hassan said while evidence provided by Forest and Bird was limited, it appeared there was a ''real risk of irreparable environmental damage''.

He said the urgency of the situation, as a result of the recent ploughing of the site, was ''not of the applicant's making''.

''The evidence shows a history of exchanges in recent weeks between the applicant and the council, in terms of which the applicant was urging that the council investigate and act.''

Council general manager, planning and development, Marc Bretherton told the ODT on Friday - the same day the agricultural contractor was seen leaving the site - that based on the council's assessment of the situation and legal advice, it had not issued an abatement notice nor any other form of enforcement proceedings.

However, yesterday, QLDC lawyers advised Forest and Bird the council issued an abatement notice on Mr Innes on Saturday evening and would be serving abatement notices on landowners Big River Paradise Ltd and Sharyn Campbell yesterday afternoon.

QLDC senior communications adviser Michele Poole said because the matter was before the court the council would not make any further comment as it was ''not appropriate to do so''.

Forest and Bird field officer Jen Miller said the society had never undertaken an application for an interim enforcement order before, but ''believed such a serious step was warranted because of the significance of the vegetation and the failure of council to take what it considered appropriate action''.

Mr Innes could challenge the interim order, in which case there would be a hearing at short notice, Ms Miller said.

''The interim order is effectively maintaining the status quo while the court process on whether enforcement orders should be issued ... runs its course. This is likely to involve an evidence exchange and a hearing ... [and] take a few months.''

Forest and Bird had indicated it would modify its enforcement order application once it had more advice on what was needed to rehabilitate the site.

The court decision states the interim order will no longer apply if Mr Innes obtains a resource consent for the prohibited activities, which are considered discretionary under the district plan.

lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz