'Defiant' couple handed hefty fine

DAY IN COURT: Irma Jager and Jan-Albert Droppers, owners of Wantoo Wantoo organic farm, outside the Nelson Courthouse.
DAY IN COURT: Irma Jager and Jan-Albert Droppers, owners of Wantoo Wantoo organic farm, outside the Nelson Courthouse.

A couple who defied orders over building yurts on their Motueka Valley property have been fined more than $33,000 in the Nelson District Court.

The couple had previously battled the Tasman District Council over the dwellings that were used for communal living on their 10-hectare property.

Yesterday Irma Jager and Jan-Albert Droppers were prosecuted under the Resource Management Act and the Building Act for the unauthorised dwellings on their property.

They admitted all charges of breaching compliance orders over the dwellings on their property.

They were fined a total of $33,400 plus costs - each had faced two charges under the Resource Management Act and a further three under the Building Act.

Droppers and Jager had contravened an enforcement order issued by the Environment Court in 2012 by using a building previously used as a deer shed (which they called an adobe cottage) as well as a yurt, for residential activity.

There were also three charges for each under the Building Act, for building three unauthorised yurts.

The TDC first visited the property in June 2011 and found five dwellings on the property: two yurts, the principal dwelling, the converted deer shed and a converted tobacco building.

Under the Tasman Resource Management Plan only one dwelling was authorised.

The TDC issued abatement notices which were ignored. In July 2012 the Environment Court issued enforcement orders which were ignored, and in March last year the council laid charges through the Nelson District Court for breaches of the Resource Management Act and failing to comply with the Building Act.

Judge Tony Zohrab formally withdrew charges in June last year as the couple began to work with the council. The yurt was dismantled and the cottage reinstated to its original shed status.

In June last year the court heard the couple paid the TDC its owed legal fees and were working with the council to comply with orders.

A TDC inspection found the couple had complied, the yurts had been dismantled and the kitchen removed from the adobe cottage.

However, in March this year, another visit from the TDC found there were three new yurts erected, and the cottage had been altered to be a dwelling again, defying prior orders.

At yesterday's sentencing, Judge Brian Dwyer said the offending had a "deliberate" aspect.

The couple had not previously used legal representation, but yesterday lawyer Fiona McCloud represented them.

The council's lawyer, Antoinette Besier, said the TDC wanted the sentence to "deter and denounce the conduct of the defendants".

She said the council had tried to work with the couple to get them to be compliant with the acts, but the couple were "defiant" to advice.

While there was no environment harm done due to the dwellings, there was an issue with the couple's conduct, she said. The council did not accept "naivety" as an explanation for the offending.

McCloud said the couple accepted they had breached the enforcement orders.

The couple's motivations were not an excuse but an explanation to the offending. They said they "regret their prior defiance".

"It's clear the offending is not cynical or motivated by a selfish desire to cut costs or make profits," McCloud said.

"They did it out of fear of breaking up the family and they want to protect their lifestyle. Early on they thought there would be no point in getting resource consent because they felt it would not be granted."

She told the court the pair had changed their attitudes to the situation and were remorseful.

They had also started up a Yurt Collective to help other people understand the legalities in yurt construction.

They had since received resource consent for the yurts and other dwellings constructed on the property.

Jager also offered an apology to the court, saying they regretted their actions. She said they felt "saddened" by missed opportunities to work with the court. "It's been a long journey for us."

The judge said while there was no damage to the environment through the constructed dwellings, there may be damage to the integrity of the district plan.

"The plan is put in place to protect rural amenities. The rules you chose to ignore are rules that seek to protect rural amenities and lifestyles of rural living."

Speaking to the Nelson Mail after the sentencing, and surrounded by tearful supporters, Jager said she believed they had acted naively over the issue.

She was pleased the court noted that the dwellings posed no harm to the environment.

They had gained resource consent for all the dwellings on the property last month.

Jager said she thought attitudes to communal and alternative living were changing, and being granted resource consent for the yurts proved this.

"I am absolutely convinced that three years ago they wouldn't have given this [consent]. Attitudes are changing and I think we have been a part of that change within the council."

She said living in a yurt was "perfectly safe and wonderful".