RMA appeals increasing QLDC legal costs

The Queenstown Lakes District had already secured 40 Environment Court hearing days for the first quarter of 2010, but it was not enough, solicitor Graeme Todd told the council's strategy committee yesterday.

The committee heard a "likely unfavourable budget variance" would be reported next year from the council's legal fees budget - due primarily to the cost of appeals to the Environment Court.

Through the long-term plan, the council set a budget of $300,000 for legal costs and $200,000 for costs of "experts" associated with appeals.

QLDC Regulatory and Corporate Services general manager Roger Taylor said by the end of October, legal costs were $206,969 - 69% of the annual budget against 33% of time.

For the same four months, expert costs were $91,757, 46% of the budget spent in 33% of the time.

Some "mis-coding" in the legal costs account meant when it was re-adjusted the actual year-to-date cost would be about $175,000, 58% of the year's budget.

"The costs for only two court hearings - Matukituki Trust ($31,000) and the Skyline judicial review ($18,000) are included in this amount.

"The balance of the costs, $126,000, is largely for ongoing processing of the outstanding appeals and dealing with procedural matters before the courts around some of these matters."

Still to be heard were 22 Environment Court appeals, providing none were withdrawn or resolved through mediation.

Of those, only four were likely to be heard in this financial year, due to the available court time in the district.

Ten of the appeals had been brought by submitters who opposed the granting of resource consent, Mr Taylor said.

"What that indicates to me that the decisions that are coming through . . . on balance are being challenged equally by applicants and opposers.

"We are finding some sort of reasonable middle ground."

Council solicitor Graeme Todd said the number of Environment Court appeals was highlighted by "the fact that we live in a community where land values are high, where people push the boundaries and where people are protecting their boundaries".

Mr Todd said the 40 hearing days for the first quarter of next year was the highest allocation in New Zealand, with the exception of Auckland.

"I have asked for more.

"If judges are available, we will get time.

"Of those 40 [days], the majority will be held in Wanaka, which generally, is just an indication of what's going on."

Mr Todd said another factor in the costs was the "growing trend" for applicants to bring a long list of witnesses to hearings.

There were 13 witnesses for the Matukituki Trust.

"They all take time".

Mr Todd was asked about costs being awarded to the council if it was deemed appropriate by a judge.

He said while costs were awarded in the Environment Court, when appeals of those decisions were taken to the High Court or Court of Appeal, costs were awarded on "scale".

Last week the council was awarded costs by the Court of Appeal when an appeal by a group of Queenstown bars was dismissed.

The council spent between $30,000 and $40,000 on the case, but was awarded $6000 - "less than 20%".

Mr Todd said the council had made a submission to the Select Committee on "how to fix" the Resource Management Act.

"More judges and case managers will fix the RMA," he said.


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