Waitaki farmers fear plan changes

The Waitaki District Council is working through a draft of its new district plan, determining...
The Waitaki District Council is working through a draft of its new district plan, determining property zones, including areas of cultural and environmental significance. The move has been met with concern from rural property owners.
Waitaki farmers are worried about losing the right to work their land in the name of environmental protections while the mayor is "desperately" seeking guidance from the government on the issue.

The Waitaki District Council is working through a draft of the new district plan, which determines property zones, called overlays, and what owners can do with their land.

The move had been met with panic from rural property owners, worried their rights will be changed and their property values diminished.

Omarama farmer Simon Williamson said about half of his farm would be affected under the current draft.

The new regulations would affect his 100ha of pine tree plantations.

He did not believe the council had to be so strict and thought it was "way overstepping".

"They’re going to close up half my farm."

He was part of a group of rural property owners who provided feedback on a early draft, but felt they had not been heard.

Waitaki MP Miles Anderson said the proposed overlays were "an erosion of private property rights".

Landowners felt the process was neither fair nor equitable, he said.

Those affected also believed the criteria for the overlays were subjective in nature.

He had met with the council and shared the public’s concerns.

He also wrote to Minister for Housing Chris Bishop about the issue.

Waitaki District Mayor Gary Kircher has contacted the minister as well.

He was "desperately" seeking guidance on what the new government wanted from the plan.

Every 10 years the council is legally required to review its district plan.

Councils have an obligation to provide protection for these environmental areas when reviewing their plans under the Resource Management Act.

Mr Kircher said the government had indicated improvements to property rights, but unless those changes were clarified, then the council had to work off current standards.

It had already taken about nine years to reach this point and waiting for clarification on the government’s expectations was slowing the district’s economic growth, as the new plan could allow for more housing.

If guidance did not come soon then the council might need to split the district plan in two, which would allow it to pass the positive housing changes while more information was sought on what was expected for those natural areas, he said.

Most of the anxiety comes from increases to four types of overlay, which all have special protections.

They are areas considered as being a significant natural area with important biodiversity, areas of significance to Māori and areas of outstanding natural features or landscape.

The qualifications for an outstanding area include its geology, ecology, aesthetic values and history.

The protections given to outstanding areas and significant natural areas are the most concerning to farmers, as there are restrictions on forestry and intensive farming.

The process for changing a district plan is complicated and takes many years.

Since November, a council subcommittee has been working through and amending the 764-page draft.

In December, a group of farmers protested the changes by attending one of the public subcommittee meetings, but as there was no space for a public forum left without contributing.

Mr Kircher said those upset with the proposal were being heard, but it was disappointing to see some spreading false information about the process or the extent of the changes.

Some critics claimed 70% of the district’s area would be affected, but in reality it was closer to 7%, he said.

He was certain the area affected would be smaller by the time it went through amendments.

There was also a misunderstanding about the process.

"There seems to be a real push that we’ve made a decision now.

"That’s just not the case."

Mr Anderson shared incorrect information regarding the plan, publicly stating his concerns over a meeting yesterday to formalise the proposal.

There was no meeting yesterday.

The next subcommittee meeting is scheduled for March 7.

The proposal is expected to reach councillors in April at the earliest.

When asked about the meeting, Mr Anderson said that date was signalled to him earlier in the year, possibly in an informal meeting with councillors.

It was also a date members of the community had expressed concerns about.

He was pleased to hear it was later than he originally believed.

A council spokesman said about 1300 landowners were contacted via mail in early 2021 about areas that could be affected.

They were invited to discuss the overlay areas on their property. About 325 provided feedback.

Following that, councillors approved the draft for further consultation, which happened between June and August in 2022.

The subcommittee is now considering the plan, taking into account the 3000 feedback points the council was provided.

Once complete, it would be put before the council.

If approved, the plan would be open for formal submissions for up to three months, a spokesman said.

Those submissions would then be published and further submissions would be called for, allowing the public to support or oppose another’s submission, a spokesman said.

Everything would then be put before a hearings panel, likely to take place late next year.

The submission process would be clearly publicised.

Mr Kircher said there was a "not unexpected cynicism" that once the zones were placed on the map they could not be changed, but that was not true.

"If people don’t think we’ve got it right, or even if they do, they can tell us," he said.

"The hearings panel has a lot of power. They can change whatever they want."

The amount of freehold land in the outstanding natural landscape zone is proposed to change from 59,299ha (8% of the district) to 95,747ha (13%).

Land with outstanding natural features is proposed to go from 17ha (0.002%) to 11,146ha (1.5%)

At present there is no land dedicated to sites and areas of significance to Māori.

The proposed plan has 12,350 ha (1.7%).

There is also no land dedicated to significant natural areas, but the new plan would have 7415ha (1.05%) with the classification.

The council spokesman said many of the above areas overlapped, particularly the outstanding natural features and sites and areas of significance to Māori.