Positive goal but difficult to achieve results to please all

The Upper Clutha, looking from Tarras towards Lake Hawea, and showing the Clutha River. PHOTOS: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
The Upper Clutha, looking from Tarras towards Lake Hawea, and showing the Clutha River. PHOTOS: STEPHEN JAQUIERY
Clutha Environment Society sprang a surprise on rural landowners in the Upper Clutha Basin in early June.The two organisations came to an agreement that should clarify, and could tighten, subdivision and development rules in the rural zone. The council announced it would carry out a landscape and land-use planning study which would be the basis for district plan regulations. As a result of the agreement, society president Julian Haworth announced the society had withdrawn its High Court appeal against the proposed district plan. The study, public hearings and likely appeals to the Environment Court could cost ratepayers more than $1 million. Reporter Mark Price put the agreement to various individuals and organisations for their opinion.

Kate Scott - Otago Lakes committee member of the Federated Farmers High Country Industry Group

These are pretty big questions and I think what I can say right up front is that it is extremely unlikely you would get a homogenous view from all farmers on how landscape should be protected.

I think the whole concept of ‘‘landscape’’ is very subjective, because it’s essentially about aesthetics for many people — how does it look? — which almost by definition is quite an individual thing.

One person’s scrubby block is another’s biodiversity oasis, and another’s degraded agricultural landscape will be someone else’s productive flats that support extensive grazing of the hills.

I think, as a pure concept, trying to get a landscape and land-use plan for the whole Upper Clutha Basin is a positive goal but I am less convinced that the end result will be something that everyone will agree with and endorse.

People own land for different reasons, particularly in this district where some landowners are wealthy enough to invest significant amounts of money into land management that they don’t expect, or need, a return on.

Some incredible replanting projects and pest-management plans are dotted around both the Wakatipu and Wanaka areas, and that’s fantastic to see but those projects are often underpinned by wealth that has been generated outside the district and can’t be matched by local farming families to the same extent.

Much of what is the surrounding landscape of places like Wanaka is in fact a working landscape that is being actively farmed, with weed and pest control carried out as part of that farming. Restrictions that impact the ability to keep farming will inevitably impact landscape just as much as residential development restrictions will.

Friesian bulls are fattened on pivot irrugated crop at Black Peaks farm on the Luggate river flat below the Wanaka airport. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery
Friesian bulls are fattened on pivot irrugated crop at Black Peaks farm on the Luggate river flat below the Wanaka airport. Photo: Stephen Jaquiery

Existing land uses and standard farming practices should be acknowledged and allowed for in any planning.

In this district, most farming is fairly low intensity and that is perhaps an advantage when addressing landscape scale issues — individual farms are larger and less developed than in other parts of the region or indeed the whole country.

Those that are still in pastoral lease are also subject to further restrictions beyond the district plan. It’s probably worth remembering too that there will be some areas in the Upper Clutha that have been bought by developers already with the intention of further developing them for residential purposes at some point in the future, and that imposing new rules or restrictions now could result in litigation and difficulties for council down the track.

I imagine QLDC will be well aware of this going into the consultation process but it may have an impact on the outcomes sought.

The whole question of how much development is too much and where to draw the line in the sand is extremely fraught, and as someone who has lived on the same property my whole life and seen a huge amount of change in my area I do struggle sometimes to get my head around more recent arrivals to the district wanting to restrict the ability of others to follow them into making a life in this area.

I don’t think there’s any argument that there is certainly such a thing as too much development, but where to draw that line is incredibly individual and is unlikely to be able to be universally agreed on.

And it’s also probably still very unclear what sort of impact Covid-19 might have on the demand side of the rural living equation.

I think the Wakatipu Basin in general has a lot less farming still taking place than does the Upper Clutha area.

This is partly about topography — much more flat land on the Wanaka side — and the extent of residential development already in the Wakatipu area.

Also, in my neck of the woods at the head of the lake, large parts of the landscape are already in the conservation estate and so are protected from development in any case.

Alpha Burn high country beef, lamb and venison farm, West Wanaka. Photo: Chris Arbuckle
Alpha Burn high country beef, lamb and venison farm, West Wanaka. Photo: Chris Arbuckle

Finally, I’d just add that I think it will be really important for council to consult federated farmers in a meaningful way and make sure that landowners get every opportunity to contribute because a big chunk of the landscapes in question are being farmed and the people who are managing that land will have knowledge and valuable insights to contribute.

Anne Steven - Wanaka landscape architect

A landscape study of the rural character landscape of the Upper Clutha is only as valuable as the terms of reference underpinning it.

It has the potential to provide a robust foundation for good landscape planning and a high quality landscape outcome over the next 10-20 years.

It will be of very limited value if it focuses on the impact of residential development on landscape character and fails to more thoughtfully and broadly address issues of loss of indigenous biodiversity, natural character and sense of place, and landscape health.

These are more important issues in my opinion.

The footprint of residential development is and will be considerably smaller than that of agricultural use.

The impact of intensive agricultural use and land conversion on landscape health and character sorely need to be addressed.

The potential for regenerative approaches to agricultural use incorporating restoration of wetlands, robustly wide riparian areas and native shrublands and forest within farmland needs envisioning. The question needs to be asked whether a degraded agricultural landscape devoid of habitat and diversity is the desired state or whether a woodier, wetter, more natural and healthier landscape is the optimum land use and character.

An associated fundamental question is whether more residential use in the way of small rural living clusters and/or nature conservation-focused smallholdings enabling nurture of nature through occupancy is appropriate.

The study also needs to collaborate with the various other land use planning frameworks concerned with the Upper Clutha basin, addressing matters such as pest management, freshwater quality and restoring biodiversity.

The siloed, reactive regulatory approach to planning and managing our rural landscapes needs to be dismantled, and replaced by a new integrated, mutually supportive and enabling approach strongly focused towards actively achieving a common vision of landscape.

An attempt should be made to gauge community opinion about the optimum state of our working rural landscape.

The outcome of such consultation needs to be treated with caution however.

The community of the Upper Clutha is continually changing as people arrive in the district to live bring different value sets with them, and others leave.

It may not be possible to have a ‘‘community opinion’’ that would endure even for the next five years.

A robust study would enable landowners to work with landscape planners and earth scientists to proactively plan a future-focused, healthier and more sustainably occupied and managed landscape. District plan policy and rules, and land use strategies can be shaped to promote, actively support and enable better landscape outcomes.

Phill Hunt - Upper Clutha farmer

No plan will suit everyone due to the diverse nature of the farming community. One person’s green and productive agricultural business adding to the economic viability to our district is to another an overdeveloped problem.

I believe that the Upper Clutha Basin is fairly heavily protected from unplanned and unwise development due to the use of current zoning definitions and lines drawn on maps by landscape and biodiversity experts employed by previous councils and then peer reviewed.

Do we really need to spend many more dollars of ratepayers’ money in times of personal hardship to rewrite what maybe, at most, needs to be tweaked?

An example of how stringent the rules are can be seen on the [Queenstown Lakes-Central Otago] boundary on both the east and west sides of the Clutha river.

Further tightening land use will have significant implications for many private landholders.

Farming is part of the landscape that we are trying to protect unless it is determined that we as a community want to move back to pre-European times throughout the district to reinstate the wetlands and indigenous forests.

That is completely different to protecting.

That is changing our current environment.

Any study should be community-led.

It is not in my mind for federated farmers to have any greater input into the study than any other organisation however, any study undertaken should not be weighted so that the outcomes are predetermined by statements made by some members of The Upper Clutha Environmental Society or some members of The Upper Clutha Branch of Forest and Bird.

All in the local community should have their say and Federated Farmers members will be a part of the discussion.

John Cossens - Lake Hawea businessman

[The agreement] did come as something of a surprise because for two years the council has fought tooth and nail through the Environment Court to reject such a proposal, even though almost all of the parties to the Environment Court district plan appeals supported it.

Mr Haworth and myself have been strong supporters of such a landscape study so I very much welcome the council’s belated agreement to undertake one.

Up until now there had been considerable inconsistency in how the operative district plan had been applied to resource consent applications by the council and its consultants.

So it is anticipated the outcome of such a landscape study will be greater certainty and clarity for landowners and the community of what they can and can’t do with their rural land and property.

However, it is wrong of Mr Haworth to say it will result in tougher rules for rural subdivision.

That is pre-empting the outcome of the landscape study.

The landscape study will not only involve a wide range of expert input but also importantly establish the values and importance the community attach to certain landscapes.

The results of such research will then help map land-use, landscape values and character to determine how land should be managed in the future.

That does not necessarily mean blanket tougher rules but will certainly help provide certainty and clarity which is what the whole study was about in the first place.

[The Wakatipu Basin study] had a flawed methodology because it did not attempt to consult with the community and therefore any values the community attached to landscapes were not known to the experts who wrote the report.

That was wrong and resulted in a significant expert bias which alienated landowners and led to a large number of appeals to the Environment Court.

I expect much of that Wakatipu basin study to be rejected.

At least the Upper Clutha Basin study will involve establishing community landscape values first before determining landscape maps.

The key message is for the council to work collaboratively with the community to develop a workable district plan.

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