Decade-long legal battle over Mackenzie Basin land use enters final chapter

Hermitage Mt Cook
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Hermitage Mt Cook

A costly, decade-long regulatory battle over land use in the Mackenzie Basin has moved into what its participants hope is the final chapter.

The Mackenzie District Council has been defending its Plan Change 13 since 2007, costing the small authority more than $1 million. 

Its proposed rules would introduce land-use restrictions intended to protect the basin's natural values.

Irrigation circles in the Mackenzie Basin, sometimes called the "greening of the basin".
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Irrigation circles in the Mackenzie Basin, sometimes called the "greening of the basin".

The environmental effects of farming intensification in the area – sometimes known as the "greening of the basin" – have long been criticised by groups such as the Environmental Defence Society and Forest & Bird.

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But many local farmers and businesses say the plan change is too restrictive and that they already protect the landscape's natural values.

After a tangled web of appeals to various courts, the latest iteration of the plan is before the Environment Court in Christchurch, which will give the final word on whether it can go ahead.

During opening statements on Monday, opponents said the rule changes would come at an economic cost and damage their ability to farm.

In a joint statement, the owners of the Mt Gerald and The Wolds stations said the plan valued the "protection of tourism at the expense of farming".

"There is a lack of balance in the proposed provisions and a fundamental failure from the council to promote sustainable management," their statement read.

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"The economic and social factors – including the costs to landowners arising from the proposal – have been overlooked in favour of protection."

Some of the proposed restrictions include stronger rules on wilding control, limits on pastoral intensification in certain areas, and restrictions on new buildings outside existing zones, including farm structures.

There is also a rule limiting new buildings within one kilometre of the state highway.

Federated Farmers has staunchly opposed the plan change, which it said was indicative of an increasing number of "compliance hoops" farmers were forced to jump through.

"Farming is part and parcel of the landscape," counsel Richard Gardner said.

"Tourists come to see what's going on in the farmland as well as to look at Mount Cook and Lake Pukaki.

"In the federation's view, landowners are proactive resource managers who rely on their property's natural and physical resources to undertake their farming businesses … It is entirely in their best interest to manage their land sustainably."

Council lawyer David Caldwell said the plan was not "locking up the basin" for farming, but protecting its natural landscape values for everyone's benefit.

"[It] doesn't introduce a hierarchy of importance in terms of tourism and farming. It's not a favouring of one over the other.

"The council recognises that both are important for the economic wellbeing of the district," he said.

When the case last appeared before the Environment Court, Judge Jon Jackson designated the Mackenzie Basin as an "outstanding natural landscape", the highest level of protection outside of conservation land.

That decision was appealed to the High Court by Federated Farmers, which upheld Jackson's decision.

The hearing is expected to continue for another eight days.

 - Stuff

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