A challenging decision

Local authorities have as one of their innumerable statutory functions the responsibility for recognising the potential value of outstanding landscapes, by which the intention is substantially aesthetic.

There may well be a monetary value from visitors attracted to what we have learned to call high-value landscapes, but one person's high-value landscape can be another's mining opportunity or wind-farm site or building platform.

The Government discovered how sensitive subjective opinions could be when it floated the possibility of exploiting the mineral wealth within the conservation estate. The hostile reaction was predictable and immediate, and reasoned debate disappeared largely because of its failure to encourage public discussion before announcing what appeared to be a decision of some finality.

Aesthetic values have both national and local significance. When the Central Otago District Council promoted a change to the district plan that specifically excluded Oamaru stone as a building material for rural homes, the reaction was negative.

This had been proposed on the grounds that the material was too reflective against the natural schist and tussock landscape and would be too visible in some settings. That is true until the stone begins to weather, when it merges without visual disturbance into the natural surroundings, or at least as well as does any other building cladding permitted in the district.

Fortunately, the council changed its mind so Oamaru stone will able to be used as a building material: democracy and common sensibilities won the day.

The subject of classification of Central Otago's higher landscapes is by no means as easily dealt with.

The council proposes (subject to appeal) designating much of it as outstanding natural landscape, the effect being to create another regulatory hurdle for those who wish to exploit it for commercial gain.

The hearings into wind-farm proposals in the region have, in particular, produced scientific evidence and testimony about the state of such landscapes, their principal economic features, their aesthetic appeal, and their biology.

It is notable councils have never before had to consider the aesthetic impact of wind farms. Nor have they had to make aesthetic value judgments on such a scale, whether qualified to do so or not.

The Central Otago council's response may well stand as one of the most historically important it has made, especially given its earlier opinion.

Providing guidance to councillors was the decision by the Environment Court with respect to Meridian Energy's Lammermoor wind farm, which made clear the court felt the site - high on the Lammermoor Range - was in an outstanding natural landscape of national significance.

That opinion is still being tested through the higher courts, but in the meantime the council has decided to read between the lines. It is worth remembering the council granted Meridian consent to proceed in 2007. Its change appears to mean that applicants seeking a variation will now have to argue on grounds of considerable difficulty.

The proposal would protect outstanding natural landscapes from inappropriate development, use and sub-division, specifically listing such things as wind farms and transmission lines and anything else that could potentially have an adverse impact on landscape values.

The areas include the Lammermoor and Lammerlaw Ranges, the Rock and Pillar range, the Lindis area, the Rough Ridge and North Rough Ridges and the Old Man ranges above Roxburgh and Dumbarton.

This brings the debate back to Meridian's core argument: what is more important in the national interest - renewable energy (for example) or the sacrifice of a visually pleasing undeveloped landscape, especially one in an area of low population?

The contrary case, which the council appears now to support, argues the undeveloped landscape has national significance on its own merits that outweigh any potential economic benefits from development.

The council's decision is a brave one in that, while it will please many who regard such landscape features as having core environmental and aesthetic value, it raises the same central questions of the Government's plan to exploit conservation land.

What is the economic potential of Central Otago's higher landscapes, and how should it be measured? Many of the areas have been mined, most have been farmed, some clearly are thought suitable to generate energy, and certainly they must have some monetary tourist value.

In effect, the council is claiming guardianship of this landscape and its future. It will prove to be a challenging obligation.



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