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Published: 2012-02-15 00:00:00

Waikato Regional Council is acting to clear up misinformation and misconceptions around the identification of proposed outstanding natural features and landscapes (ONFLs) and significant natural areas (SNAs) in the region.

Work related to SNAs involving the regional council and Thames-Coromandel District Council has caused alarm on the Coromandel where some have interpreted it as being a prelude to land use restrictions on private property.

There has also been criticism about an alleged lack of public ability to comment on the inclusion of references to ONFLs in the proposed Regional Policy Statement.

Regional council policy group manager Vaughan Payne said the Resource Management Act (RMA) says all regional and district councils must protect in some way these ONFLs and SNAs as a matter of national importance. One essential step in this protection is identifying where the ONFLs and SNAs are.

However, only the ONFLs – broad areas of mostly public land, including the Coromandel Ranges – are actually identified at a high level in the proposed RPS. There is no proposal in the proposed RPS to impose land restrictions on private property within ONFLs, although the document encourages district council plans to somehow recognize the important characteristics of these areas. It will be up to district councils – who must follow democratic process – to decide how this will be done.

The proposed RPS does not identify SNAs, which are sites that have significant natural habitats, but makes general reference to them. What the regional council has done is a desk top exercise identifying potential SNAs from data bases. This information has been passed to district councils so they can start talking with their communities and landowners about how to manage them, and incorporate SNAs into their district plans.

The proposed RPS, which has been available for formal public submissions, outlines this type of information about ONFLs and SNAs. The public consultation process on the RPS began back in 2010.

The different district councils are now in the process of deciding what to do with  the detailed SNA information covering their communities.

Thames-Coromandel District Council (TCDC) had written to a variety of private landowners about SNAs potentially being on their properties, and that is what sparked concerns in the community about what would happen.

However, TCDC has since advised it does not plan to incorporate the latest SNA information from the regional council relevant to its area in the district plan at this stage. A meeting to confirm that decision is planned for next month. TCDC still plans to use the new SNA information to talk to landowners about whether the data related to the properties is correct and the future management of the sites. The current TCDC district plan already has some rules referring to the need to protect SNAs, but does not specify where these are.

“In practice, all Waikato Regional Council has done is to gather information about ONFLs and SNAs to help fulfill its legal responsibilities under the RMA. Also, as per its legal responsibilities, it has advised district councils that they will need to talk to their communities and land owners about how to manage them,” Mr Payne said.

“So the regional council is not independently imposing this situation on district councils and their communities. We are simply following central Government direction.

“That said we see clear merit in having some degree of protection for outstanding and significant natural areas so that their important attributes are maintained.

“Ultimately, for many landowners who have an SNA identified on their property under a district plan, there may be no immediate effect beyond having the ecological value of their property confirmed. And, over time, some landowners may be able to apply for rates relief or qualify for restoration assistance from councils to support SNA protection.

“In no way should the work we are doing with district councils be construed as some sort of land grab or heavy handed attempt by the regional council to impose land use restrictions on private property owners,” Mr Payne said.