Tensions at hearing

The Queenstown Lakes District Council's level of culpability came under the spotlight yesterday in a land debate pitting farmers against conservationists.

Representatives from both sides packed the public gallery on day two of an Environment Court hearing in Queenstown considering the cancellation of an interim enforcement order against Hawea Flat farmer Dougal Innes.

The order was obtained earlier this month by the Royal Forest and Bird Society of New Zealand to prevent Mr Innes carrying out further native vegetation clearance and discing work on his land next to the Clutha River, which is considered to be ecologically important.

During a break in proceedings, tensions were evident between some of the Upper Clutha farmers and Forest and Bird members.

The council's planning and development general manager, Marc Bretherton, said field notes prepared by the QLDC's ecological consultant identifying the site's conservation values had mistakenly not been provided to the council when Mr Innes sought advice on whether his proposed farming operation would require resource consent.

Mr Bretherton and council planner Ian Greaves subsequently advised Mr Innes it appeared there would be no breach of the district plan.

''Based on the information that council held, there was nothing telling me that he needed a resource consent,'' Mr Bretherton said.

''Certainly, if we'd had possession of that [ecological] information, that would have better informed our understanding of the site ... and we would have been better able to advise Mr Innes.''

Mr Innes was advised obtaining further information himself would ''assist him in determining categorically whether resource consent was or was not required'', Mr Bretherton said.

Mr Greaves said he did not tell Mr Innes to seek additional advice from an ecologist.

However, as it was Mr Innes' obligation to ensure he complied with the district plan rule on indigenous vegetation clearance, it would have been prudent to do so, he said.

''So every time a farmer wants to clear his or her land and they're not sure whether they've got any indigenous vegetation on it, they're going to have to secure the assistance of an ecologist?'' Mr Innes' lawyer, Jan Caunter, asked, to which Mr Greaves replied, ''Yes.''

Both Mr Bretherton and Mr Greaves agreed with commissioner John Mills there was nothing to indicate Mr Innes was ''anything but straightforward'' and had acted on the best information available to him.

Earlier, Mr Mills asked Forest and Bird field officer Jen Miller for her view of the council's response to Mr Innes' inquiries.

''To be frank, if I was Mr Innes I would feel less than satisfied. I think it was not really giving him any direction either way ... Perhaps the council might have been more helpful to him in terms of the information they had available,'' Ms Miller said.

Wanaka landscape architect Anne Steven, appearing for Forest and Bird, acknowledged it was ''somewhat unreasonable'' to expect Mr Innes, as a private rural landowner, to be aware of the ecological information relating to the land.

Mr Innes also took the stand.

''I've invested our entire savings in this property . . . and I didn't intend to be in this position we are now,'' he told the court.

Asked by Forest and Bird lawyer Sally Gepp whether he would keep cultivating the land if the interim enforcement order was cancelled, Mr Innes responded: ''I intend to farm the property, so yes, that's the reason I purchased it.''

Mr Innes' planner, Duncan White, told the court the attendance of many farmers at the hearing reflected concerns in the farming community about the wider implications of the interim enforcement order against Mr Innes.

lucy.ibbotson@odt.co.nz