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Developer jailed for brutal damage to protected native trees

Developer sentenced to jail for “brutal” damage to protected native trees

Auckland Council has welcomed the sentencing of a man who damaged seven protected native trees – six pōhutukawa and one totara – at a Waiwera property, despite multiple warnings from the council to stop.

Augustine Lau had earlier pleaded guilty to one charge of using land in contravention of regional and district rules under the Resource Management Act. He was sentenced at the Auckland District Court to two and a half months’ imprisonment earlier this week.

Judge says damage brutal and deliberate

At the sentencing, Judge Kellar said it was “hard to imagine a more deliberate case” and that Mr Lau’s purpose was financial gain because the views resulting from removal of the trees would have significantly enhanced the value of the property.

Judge Kellar also said: “To describe the attitude of the offender as poor would be an understatement”. Mr Lau was said to have shown “little respect to council officers” and “flagrant disregard” for the consenting process.

As a result of Mr Lau’s actions, four of the affected trees were seriously damaged with only the base of the trunk remaining, and it was determined it all of these trees would die as a result of the unlawful work. The other three trees also suffered serious damage. The trees were all large, mature specimens, some of which were found to be over 100 years old.

Judge Kellar commented that the damage to the trees was “brutal” and the consequences for four of the trees were “terminal.”

Council made every attempt to stop damage

Steve Pearce, Auckland Council’s Manager Regulatory Compliance, says that the sentencing sends a strong message that this kind of damage to the environment is not acceptable and disregard for the rules won’t be tolerated.

“Auckland Council staff did everything they could to make Mr Lau aware of his responsibilities, including that he needed to stop with his plans of felling the native trees at the site. We visited the site a number of times to inspect the works being managed by Mr Lau. However, he persisted and, as a result, we issued an abatement notice requiring him to stop these works in October 2013,” Mr Pearce says.

“In June 2014, on Mr Lau’s instructions, a contractor broke the trunks of three of the pohutukawa trees and one totara tree, and broke a number of large branches off three further pohutukawa trees. All of the trees were protected by the operative Auckland Council District Plan: Rodney Section, and five were also protected by the Proposed Auckland Unitary Plan.

“Following a complaint from a member of the public while the works were occurring, staff visited the site to investigate. They found Mr Lau supervising the contractor in an attempt to knock down one of the pohutukawa trees that branches had been broken from. The contractor was told to stop with the work immediately.

“Mr Lau said the trees were being felled because they had been damaged by a recent storm and were unsafe, however we observed that the storm damage to the trees was confined to some small limbs and did not present any immediate risk to people or property.

“We take a graduated approach to enforcement and will help people to comply where we can, either by giving advice and warnings first or giving them the opportunity to apply for any consents and permits that might be necessary.

“However, if offences cause significant effects, or the offenders continue to ignore their requirements, we will also take enforcement action, including through the courts if necessary,” Mr Pearce says.

“It is relatively uncommon for us to end up in the court, and even rarer for us to seek a sentence of imprisonment; however the deliberateness of his offending and the significance of the effects left us with no option.”
Rules in place for a reason

Councillor Linda Cooper, Chair of the council’s Regulatory Committee, says that while people are free to decide what they do with trees on private property that aren’t protected, when the trees on the protected list the rules need to be followed.

“We support people's rights to develop their properties, but this cannot be at the expense of the environment or by blatantly ignoring the rules,” Councillor Cooper says.

“It is our job to uphold the protection on these particular trees, and this decision shows that there are very real consequences for those who ignore their responsibilities under the law.”

Report any concerns to council

Mr Pearce says that anyone who is concerned about damage being done to protected tress or development works should call the council as soon as possible on 09 301 0101.

A full copy of the court’s decision will be published online in due course.

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