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Council’s Protest Vote On Wetlands Leaves Some Land In Limbo

Wetlands that are not in fact wetlands remain in limbo after the West Coast Regional Council yesterday rejected a plan change that would have freed them from looming restrictions.

The council's Resource Management Committee voted 5-4 yesterday against adopting Land and Water Plan change 1, on the basis that it does not go far enough in removing wetlands designations affecting private land.

The council's wetlands saga goes back to 2005, when it decided that 20 wetlands on the West Coast were significant and should be protected, but that was appealed to the Environment Court by the Department of Conservation and Forest and Bird which argued that a further 200 wetlands should be added to the list.

In 2012 the court accepted they were likely to be significant -- but found the maps they were based on were dated, and the land was listed as schedule 2 wetlands, pending closer inspection.

The council invited affected landowners to comment, and many did so -- most of whom wanted their land taken off the list.

Starting in 2012 a regional council assessor and a DOC ecologist worked together to review the wetland boundaries on both lists. Four years alter it notified plan change 1 based on their recommendations.

It then convened a hearings panel, which heard submissions and asked for more information from an independent assessor, who worked with DOC to iron out the last remaining areas of disagreement.

In September last year the panel finally came up with its recommendations, to remove four areas from schedule 2 -- either because they owned by DOC or because they clearly had wetland values and belonged on the original list.

But 12 more wetlands were recommended for boundary changes, taking about 500ha off the schedule.

The council was faced yesterday with deciding whether to accept or reject those recommendations, along with another important one for the Coast: to make sphagnum moss harvesting a permitted activity in the regional Land and Water Plan.

The council says the 2012 Environment Court decision redefined the definition of vegetation disturbance, and that had the unforeseen consequence of making sphagnum moss harvesting an activity requiring resource consent -- in both schedule 1 and schedule 2 wetlands.

The proposed plan change would have allowed harvesting in schedule 2 areas, with a tick list of conditions, and required resource consent only for schedule 1 land.

But after yesterday's vote, the status quo -- i.e. uncertainty for landowners -- remains.
It was a close one: the two iwi representatives Francois Tumahai and Jackie Douglas voted 'no', along with council chairman Allan Birchfield, Crs Peter Ewen and Brett Cummings.

Resource Management Committee chairman Cr Stuart Challenger was outvoted, along with Crs Debra Magner, John Hill and Laura Coll-McLaughlin.

Cr Birchfield told the Greymouth Star the amendments to the plan were little more than tinkering around the edges.

"DOC identified 60,000ha of wetland, and 6269ha of that was on private land. The plan change would only have freed up 496ha.

"We want it all out -- all the wetlands on private land, and that's what we'll be telling the Government."

Cr Birchfield acknowledged that regional council staff would not be happy with the outcome of the vote.

"I know they've been working their off for years to get this sorted ... they won't be happy, but in the end we couldn't accept it."
So where to from now?

Cr Birchfield is not entirely sure, but he was off to Wellington last night for a Local Government NZ meeting, in company with the council chief executive Mike Meehan. Their discussions are bound to be interesting.

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