Decision to remove SNA zoning queried

The Waitaki District Council building. Photo: ODT files
The Waitaki District Council building. Photo: ODT files
A Waitaki District Council decision to change restrictions on a single piece of land has been questioned by staff after it was revealed the land is to be owned by a director of one of its operations.

The change was made in a district plan subcommittee meeting, in which a group of councillors have been reviewing proposed changes to area zonings.

In the meeting, councillors moved to remove a piece of private land from a list with potentially upcoming environment restrictions, but it was not until after the decision that a potential conflict of interest was brought up by one of the council’s executive team, heritage, planning and regulatory group manager Roger Cook.

It is the only specific site to be removed from the list so far.

The site, which is at Table Hill near Twizel, was assessed as a significant natural area (SNA) in the draft of the council’s new district plan.

It is a plan which has been met with uproar by local farmers, who feel the possible changes would impede their ability to farm and lower the value of their land.

The SNA classification is given to land of unique natural value and restricts activities such as forestry or intensive farming.

Once the motion to remove the Table Hill site was passed, Mr Cook leaned over and made a private comment to subcommittee chair Cr Jim Thomson.

Cr Thomson then spoke to the room.

"I’ve just had a question from Mr Cook about whether the issue we’ve just dealt with is procedurally squeaky clean.

"The landowner in that instance is a council-appointed director to a CCO [council controlled operation]."

The motion was proposed by Cr Jim Hopkins, who took issue with the justification for the SNA, as the description listed the site as moderately representative of the original vegetation and one that had been modified by the presence of exotic grasses and herbs.

"Which sounds to me to be a perfectly sublime and succinct way to describe something that isn’t a significant natural area," he said.

It was seconded by Mayor Gary Kircher.

Once the motion was carried and it was revealed the land belonged to a council-appointed director, Mr Kircher said he "didn’t realise that" and "certainly made the decision without the knowledge of that".

Mr Cook spoke to the group and noted no discussion was sought on the motion before it was put through.

"We didn’t ask for officer comment on the appropriateness of that, given there seems to be a scientific lack of evidence to support that decision."

Cr Thomson said he was happy for council staff to comment on the decision, but it was "not going to change the decision".

The matter was dropped and the subcommittee moved on.

Although no comment was sought from staff in this meeting, the site was discussed with a staff member on February 13, when Cr Hopkins originally tried to pass the motion, but the subcommittee ran out of time.

When asked if he knew who owned the land before proposing the motion, Cr Hopkins said he did not.

"If you asked me right now who owned Table Hill I couldn’t tell you.

"No-one told me in advance who owned the property and no-one asked me for special consideration in respect to it.

"The plan’s integrity — and mine — are too important to be compromised in this way."

He said the reason he proposed the motion was because the brief description did not appear to justify the proposed classification.