A pair of elderly environmentalists are being taken to court for felling and trimming native trees they believed were rotten and dangerous.
Peter Standen, 77, and wife Diana, 74, of Otaki, belong to Keep Otaki Beautiful and Friends of the River, and Mrs Standen devotes a morning a week to creating and maintaining Pareomatangi reserve in the town.
"We love native bush . . . we would never dream of damaging it," Mrs Standen said.
Last year they employed an arborist to clean up what they called "a mass of tangled and broken branches, dead, diseased and dangerous trees" in a stand of bush on their newly bought property in Oriwa Cres.
The work included felling and trimming three kohekohe, three tawa and a mahoe.
The Standens did not apply for resource consent as they were not aware they needed it, but they showed a council officer what they were doing after the council received a complaint from a neighbour.
They were told to stop the work immediately, and in November were told legal action was being considered.
They have been summoned to appear in Levin District Court next week, charged with contravening the District Plan by "modifying naturally occurring indigenous vegetation" more than four metres tall and with a trunk circumference of more than 95cm.
The maximum penalty, under the Resource Management Act, is two years' imprisonment or a fine of $300,000.
The Standens have pleaded not guilty, saying they took their arborist's advice, and say the council's reaction has been "totally over the top".
At one point, the council sent a uniformed police officer to their house with a search warrant, accompanied by an ecological specialist.
"To have an unannounced visit by the police at 9am shocked us both," Mr Standen said.
His wife said: "The council's lack of communication has at all times exacerbated the situation. We were new to this area, totally oblivious of what we were and were not allowed to do."
Their elderly neighbours have also been charged in relation to work carried out on three native trees on their property.
Arborist Craig Eddie, of Monkeyman Tree Services, has also pleaded not guilty, describing the council's actions as "a bureaucratic bungle".
The trees he felled and trimmed were "damaged, rotten and there was a lot of dead wood", he said.
Council chief executive Pat Dougherty said it did not pursue prosecutions lightly, and had investigated the case thoroughly.
"It is hoped this action will serve as a deterrent to others."
It had "absolutely no intention of seeking anything like the maximum penalties the law provides".
The council had apologised for any distress caused to the Standens during the investigation, he said. He confirmed a police officer accompanied a council officer to the couple's property, but left after they were co-operative and did not challenge right of access.
Rules regarding felling and trimming native trees on private land vary around the Wellington region:
Kapiti Coast District Council requires resource consent for modification of "naturally occurring indigenous vegetation" more than four metres high or with a trunk circumference of more than 30cm.
That includes all species that grow within the Tararua, Foxton and Manawatu ecological districts.
Wairarapa Combined District Plan does not allow any modification to kanuka, manuka and tauhinu, and has a raft of rules restricting disturbance of other naturally occurring indigenous vegetation more than 4m high with a trunk circumference of more than 30cm.
Wellington City Council has no rules regarding trimming native trees on private property. It is up to the owners.
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