Company pre-empts consent, builds vineyard at expense of wetland

A wetland next to a vineyard development on a Gill Construction property near Wairau Valley flanked by cabbage trees.

A wetland next to a vineyard development on a Gill Construction property near Wairau Valley flanked by cabbage trees.

A Marlborough company has been fined for deliberately damaging an ecologically significant wetland while developing a vineyard.

Gill Construction wanted to create the vineyard on its property on State Highway 63, near the Wairau Valley township.

The company started pulling out vegetation and diverted water that fed a 1.46-hectare wetland on the same property in February last year.

That was shortly after director Antony Charles Gill met with the Marlborough District Council about his plans, and applied for resource consent.

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But Gill started work without waiting for consent to be approved.

Wetlands expert John Preece was hired to assess the damage in July last year.

The wetland was of high ecological value, home to native species including two types of cabbage tree, he said.

"If the site were to remain without remediation, it would have long-term effects on the wetland. Likely well over half would be permanently lost ... and the rest would not return to functionality for a long time," Preece wrote in his report.

Removing the water supply was "tipping the balance towards a dryland system, providing an ideal seedbed for weeds which will further devalue the wetland".

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However, Gill had tried not to disturb the native cabbage trees, and his removal of the willow trees would actually benefit the wetland if there was a water source, Preece noted.

Preece made recommendations to save the wetland, and Gill set about putting them into action under Preece's supervision.

Preece said if his instructions were followed the wetland could be restored to a better standard than it was before Gill started work.

The council charged the company with illegally diverting water in breach of the Resource Management Act. The maximum penalty for a commercial body was $600,000.

Gill Construction pleaded guilty at an Environment Court hearing at the Blenheim District Court on Wednesday.

The directors were overseas so the sentencing was held in their absence.

Defence lawyer David Clark said the company should get discounts for a guilty plea, for "extraordinary remorse" shown through attempts to fix the wetland, and for a lack of previous convictions, he said.

Once Gill had completed the five-year restoration plan, the wetland would be "bigger and better as a result", Clark said.

An amended resource consent application for the vineyard was approved in May. It did not allow Gill to divert water but included proposals to help protect the wetland.

Gill had already filled in the channel that diverted water.

Judge John Hassan said the act was supposed to protect natural resources and Gill Construction had undermined it by not allowing it to "fulfil its pre-emptive purpose".

There was no evidence the company had profited from their breach of the act, but he noted it was for commercial purposes.

"They were flagrant and irresponsible in undertaking water diversion and other activities in the knowledge it would require resource consent after meeting with council," Judge Hassan said.

After considering mitigating factors, Judge Hassan fined Gill Construction $25,000, with 90 per cent to go to the council.

He also ordered Gill complete a list of improvements agreed upon by the lawyers, estimated to cost about $300,000 over the next five years.

The list included weed control, stabilising the meanders of the creek, plantings, and removing willows and other non-native trees.

"It's important the public understand crime does not pay," Judge Hassan said.

 - The Marlborough Express

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