Council to act on court case review

Photo: ODT files
Photo: ODT files
A former government minister posting on social media was part of a chain of events in a court case which could ultimately cost a Southland council more than a million dollars.

The Southland District Council (SDC) released a statement this week saying it accepted the findings of an independent review of the Te Anau Downs Station environment court decision and is starting work to address the review’s 12 recommendations.

The council was ordered to pay court costs of $300,000 to station owner Peter Chartres — 80% of his costs — following an Environment Court hearing last year.

The council confirmed yesterday its costs were $453,162.63.

The review said the council was also looking at another $600,000 to fix the issues the case highlighted.

The council had taken Mr Chartres to the Environment Court, saying he had illegally cleared indigenous vegetation on the family’s station.

But he won the case, which led the council to conduct a review.

The review’s ultimate finding was there was no single fault in the court result.

It was a "decade-long concert of factors aligned in a way that was difficult to foresee, difficult to avoid and difficult to navigate".

‘‘No single individual could be held responsible and the approach was not over-zealous or idealistic."

The review, written by environmental consultant John Hutchings and lawyer Ian Gordon, outlined how the case came about and the interests of lobby groups and politicians.

The review’s aim was to better understand the court’s decision.

As far back as 2010, Forest & Bird and local MP Bill English queried the council about vegetation clearance at the station.

In March 2018, the then Minister of Conservation Eugenie Sage posted a video of Te Anau Downs Station on social media describing vegetation clearance as a "major failure in RMA enforcement".

In August of that year, SDC officers and an ecologist went to the property with a search warrant.

It was agreed each side would obtain a legal opinion on the clearance.

The council believed station employees or contractors were, for the first time, using a range of heavy machinery to systematically level vegetation across large areas.

The council said there was irreversible damage to 800ha of land in 2018/19.

An enforcement order stopped the clearance from August, 2020.

The review said ‘‘the council was placed under pressure by members of Parliament and environmental NGOs to act to constrain Te Anau Downs Station’s owners’ vegetation clearance activities."

‘‘Other organisations such as Federated Farmers wanted the council to not act against the owners’ land management practices, " as the station had been clearing vegetation for more than 100 years.

The review outlined a lack of staff resources at the council.

‘‘The general manager of environmental services at the council was reassigned to a different role before the substantive hearing of the application. A new general manager under a different executive leadership team structure was appointed to provide oversight of the compliance and resource consent team.

‘‘Following that reshuffle, there was not a single member of the compliance and resource consent team who had seen an enforcement proceeding through to an Environment Court hearing," the review said.

The review identified there had been an overly optimistic assumption on the quality of aerial imagery in the council’s case and it had also taken a narrow scope during the process.

The council was up against ‘‘a strongly adversarial respondent, and a well-resourced legal team".

The court also had little interest in evidence about which new or different clearance methods were being used at the station, the review said.

It said changes to get the process right would cost about $600,000. Changes will be around the district plan, more staff and an enhanced document system.

Council chief executive Cameron McIntosh accepted the organisation should have done better in its approach to the Environment Court proceedings.

"We got it wrong and we know the local community is disappointed in the process," he said.

‘‘We also know there’s a lot of work ahead and we’ll need resourcing to bring our regulatory services up to par."