Last week commissioners began hearing submissions on what is the most significant change in Whangarei District Council planning rules in decades. Alarmingly, few people actually realise the new rules are in the pipeline. Hardly a word has been mentioned in the media, and the Council itself did not hold any public meetings to inform the public of the changes.
Ten plan changes are proposed - affecting every landowner outside of the built up urban environment. The plan changes divide the rural (countryside) area into seven "Environments" with "Resource area" overlays, each with their own rules. (Plan changes PC85, 85A, 85B, 85C, 85D, 86A, 86B. 87, 102, and 114.)
The result will be an unnecessarily restrictive and confusing web of regulations that will inevitably add uncertainty and significant cost to anyone wanting to improve their land. There are some aspects of the proposed plan changes that are heading in the right direction. For example:
· A reduction in permitted subdivision lot sizes for land transitioning between the urban and rural environments. This is what the market is demanding, as is obvious from what is actually occurring.
· Provisions for the introduction of positive incentives to encourage environmental protection, albeit limited and in general form. Even if these clauses survive the submission process, I remain sceptical that such measures would be implemented by council staff who seem more willing to use the big stick handed to them by councillors than encouragement.
Unfortunately those positive aspects are overwhelmed by the negatives:
· The further erosion of private property rights by transferring discretion about what one does on one’s own property from the property owner to council staff who presume to represent the values of the community at large. The problem is the low thresholds requiring a property owner to pay Council so they can go cap in hand and plead their case to a planner - who no doubt will be all too willing to impose their own world view on the prostrate individual.
· Much of the coastal area has been zoned Rural Production, which is so nonsensical that it makes one assume the rule writers have not spent enough time away from their desks to see what is happening in the real world. It is more likely that the planners have bought into the anti-subdivision rhetoric and included the coastal area as Rural Production as a means to enable a 20ha restriction on subdivision. The minimum lot size is an absurdity for lifestyle property - too small to be economically viable, but too large for all but very wealthy landowners to revegetate. Instead they run carbon omitting animals to subsidise their rates bill, and land that would otherwise be returned to a bush habit remains in grass. Where's the environmental benefit in that?
· The plan changes create different rules depending on who created the effect. In some cases, there are exemptions to the regulations that apply to general landowners for Maori, utility providers, and for the council itself. For council to exude itself from the rules it imposes on others is outrageous.
· Other rules are simply nonsensical, like the rule to avoid "the use of hard protection structures, such as seawalls and rock armouring, along with other visible artificial elements". Like, how else does one create a viable sea wall to stop the global-warming rising seas without using rocks and other visible elements!
Madness like this is evident throughout the plan, which goes too far by solving "problems" that are more imaginary than real. But the what is most disappointing is the underlying assumption that landowners can't be trusted. This is contrary to the great things landowners have been doing, and continue to do, to improve the environment. Literally millions of native trees have been planted in our region in recent years by private landowners - and the positive effects are plain to see. Instead of recognising those good deeds, planners, aided by indifferent and pro-regulation councillors, want to have greater say about what you can and (more importantly) can't do on your own private property.
Unfortunately the real damage to the community is that good people will not do good things on their land because their hands, legs and neck are bound by red tape.
Once the commissioners have heard from submitters they will present their decision to councillors to rubber stamp. It is highly likely that the decision will be appealed to the Environment Court, and yet more money will be wasted on lawyers and consultants arguing over the placement of commas, and debating the meaning of esoteric notions like "spatial or temporal cumulative adverse effects".
Frank Newman writes a weekly article for Property Plus.