Barbara McKenzie
BA (Hons) Linguistics; PhD (German Lit.)

Nationwide policies to incorporate private land into “Significant Natural Areas”, ostensibly deriving authority from the Resource Management Act, have been met with hostility from landowners. Most recently, the Far North District Council announced on 27 July that it has dropped its plans to zone 42% of its area as SNAs and, as of yesterday, 28 July, Upper Hutt is deferring its SNA discussion after strong opposition from residents. 

There is now a growing concern in Wellington about the Council’s SNA initiative as more residents become aware of the policy and its implications, which hitherto have been kept pretty much under the radar.

The Wellington SNA Committee (WSNAC) held a public meeting two weeks ago to discuss Wellington City Council’s SNA or ‘Backyard Taonga’ policy, which affects 1,693 private properties.  Mayor Andy Foster spoke to a packed hall in Khandallah, focusing on the value of protecting indigenous biodiversity. 

Frustration was soon expressed at the mayor’s failure to address essential issues: the early interjection, “We haven’t come to be harangued on the environment – everyone here is an environmentalist.  What we want to talk about now is your confiscation of property rights”, was echoed by others and set the tone for the meeting.  The following points were made:

Traditional Property Rights

The policy represents an unheard of attack on property rights.  Affected homeowners will be obliged to apply under the Resource Management Act if they want to do anything more than minimal maintenance, such as plant a camellia, build a garden shed (or treehouse), add on a room, or install a drain. Anything more significant such as subdividing will be impossible or at best extremely difficult. 

Reduction of Property Value

The impact on property values is significant.  While an evaluation commissioned by the council indicates losses in value of up to 30%, in some cases whole sections are swallowed up; in which case the loss is 100%.  Problems may arise if a mortgaged property is dramatically reduced in value – has the council considered this?  

Foreign Investment

Further evidence that the policy has not been thought through is that there are international agreements under which any government action which reduces the value of an investment makes the government liable for the loss. These kinds of international agreements have been invoked quite often in recent years in other countries.

Wellington Has Ample Reserves

The Council’s high-handed action in incorporating private property, causing angst and loss to almost 1,700 homeowners, will add just 5% to SNAs.

Question of Significant Indigenous Biodiversity  

The policies are said to be based on RMA Section 6 Matters of National Importance, specifically (c) ‘the protection of areas of significant indigenous vegetation and significant habitats of indigenous fauna’.  In fact, the private land to be incorporated in SNAs can be covered in regenerating bush, pine, agapanthus, garden shrubbery, noxious weeds or even lawn if shaded by large trees – as long as it looks green from the air.   

Home owners are being punished for encouraging and nurturing native bush in their backyards. The audience expressed outrage that the land owners are portrayed as anti-environment, even though they have demonstrably far higher environmental values than most of the general public.

Poor Outcomes

The policy provides a huge disincentive to maintain native bush. Instead, it will lead to cynicism, neglect or destruction. It was pointed out that the Council itself has a poor record in looking after its reserves, and has provided no plan on how it will care for reserves on private land.

Underhanded Implementation

The policy has been given no direct publicity and was given an only cursory mention in the Spatial Plan. Letters sent to (some) property owners were vague and feel-good, giving the impression that the Council was doing them a favour. Of those who received a letter, many were confused about the implications and the general public is largely unaware of the scheme.

Legal Status

Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and Forest and Bird have all confirmed to me that the legal basis for the policy is Section 6 (c) of the Resource Management Act.  On that basis the SNA policy was unlawful at the time of rollout in 2019.

  • The Resource Management Act makes it clear that while all efforts should be made to protect the environment, protect endangered species and preserve significant natural areas, the welfare of individuals and communities should come first“In this Act sustainable management means managing the use, development, and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while […](c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment.”
  • The Biodiversity Strategy (2000) recognises “the rights, responsibilities and interests of landowners and society, including information, education, voluntary mechanisms, economic incentives, property rights and regulation […] and emphasises that “Securing the willing and active participation of landowners is therefore pivotal to sustaining indigenous biodiversity on private land”.

The SNA policy at the time of approval was therefore in breach of both the Resource Management Act and the Biodiversity Strategy. (Council officers make the point that SNAs will be lawful under the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, which should be finalised this year.)

To see whether a property is affected by WCC’s Significant Natural Area current designations click here.

Note: These policies are strongly promoted by Forest and Bird, who in 2016 took New Plymouth District Council to court over its failure to include private land in its SNAs.

In 2018, after Hutt City Council reversed its proposal to list Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) on private land on the District Plan (due to protest from residents) Forest and Bird went to the Environment Court to reverse that decision. 

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