Mackenzie District Council reaches settlement to close land clearance loopholes

The Mackenzie District Council has come to an agreement with an environmental group over land clearance.

The Mackenzie District Council has come to an agreement with an environmental group over land clearance.

Loopholes that allowed much-criticised vegetation clearance in the Mackenzie District will be closed before Christmas.

Concerns over the rate of indigenous vegetation being cleared in the district sparked a legal challenge by the Environmental Defence Society (EDS), which was heard under urgency in the Environment Court in Christchurch last week.

An out of court settlement has been reached between EDS and the Mackenzie District Council to temporarily suspend the exemption provisions from its district plan for the next 12 months.

Within that time, new and more permanent plan changes were expected to be put in place.

READ MORE: Council in court

EDS chief executive Gary Taylor said the settlement removed a loophole that meant tussock grassland and other significant vegetation could be cleared "with impunity, in spite of the ecological and landscape values".

"It's another piece of the jigsaw of trying to get an acceptable outcome in the Mackenzie Country," he said.

"They recognised there was this loophole, and clearly the planner wasn't happy with it, and they've manned up, as it were."

It had been a "complete anachronism" that nationally important resources could be destroyed without consent, he said.

Council chief executive Wayne Barnett said the council was pleased with the outcome that provided "greater certainty" about its plan.

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"Our agreement is to take the required procedural steps to notify a very focused plan change and have it take legal effect before Christmas. That is of course subject to council's statutory duties," he said.

"That will give us time to then move ahead with Plan Change 13 (PC13) which is being heard in the Environment Court in the New Year. I expect PC13 will put in place new provisions later in 2017 that should provide an improved policy framework for the future of the Basin."

PC13 has been the subject of a lengthy and costly court process since 2007.

Council planning manager Nathan Hole said an Environment Court hearing about the plan had been set down for two weeks, beginning on January 30, in Christchurch.

The new settlement would effectively put temporary measures in place while that was worked through,he said.

It would also allow time for the council to notify its District Plan review at the end of April.

An affidavit by Crown Research Institute Landcare Research programme leader Dr Susan Walker was entered as part of the EDS application.

In the affidavit, Walker states clearance in the Mackenzie Basin will have "serious adverse effects" on biodiversity.

"The scale and pace of clearance I have observed across the Mackenzie Basin in the last year is unprecedented in my 20 years' experience," she states.

During the court hearing, EDS lawyer Rob Enright said urgent action was needed while other work was underway to ensure people did not rush to clear land in the interim.

"The goldrush is already happening," he said.

"We've reached a tipping point, and urgent action is necessary."

There was "strong public interest" in having a regulatory programme in place, Enright said.

Judge L J Newhook, who considered the case, released both a declaration and an order on Thursday that ensured the proposed settlement would have immediate legal effect.

The exemptions were expected to be suspended as of Friday.

 - Stuff

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