In an apparent victory for people power the Far North District Council has shelved controversial plans for Significant Natural Areas — at least until it gets a clear steer from the government.
Earlier this year thousands of Far North property owners received letters from the council informing them that portions of their land — more than 90 per cent in some cases — could be designated as Significant Natural Areas (SNAs) to increase protection for areas of high ecological value.
The new rules, if adopted, would have required landowners to seek consent for activities within SNAs such as putting up fences or cutting down trees.
The proposal unified a wide swathe of the Far North in opposition.
Many Māori saw it as a ''modern-day land grab''; farmers saw it as yet another imposition on their businesses and property rights; and even some environmentalists were opposed, saying the council was usurping their role as caretakers by ordering them to do what they had done voluntarily for years.
Public meetings were called around the district — a farmers' gathering at Kawakawa drew just under 500 people — and an estimated 2000 people marched through Kaikohe to the council offices.
The SNA proposal also helped drive thousands of Northlanders onto the streets in the ''ute tax'' protests of July 16.
As a result, the council has decided to drop SNAs from its proposed District Plan.
The decision was made after lengthy debate by the council's Strategy and Policy Committee, which voted to keep working on the draft District Plan but to remove the SNA maps developed by consultant ecologists.
Councillors also agreed to revisit biodiversity protection at the committee's next monthly meeting, once they had clearer direction from the government.
Kawakawa farmer Kate Lowe, however, said she wouldn't be able to let down her guard until SNAs were scrapped in the Far North.
Lowe, who organised the Kawakawa SNA meeting and the Kerikeri ''ute tax'' protest, said while the council decision was good news, it was also an easy decision to make given that the government wouldn't release its National Policy Statement for Indigenous Biodiversity until later this year.
At that point, the government could instruct councils to carry on with SNAs.
''So there's no sigh of relief around here. Until they say they're ditching SNAs entirely I won't believe any of it. They just need to leave private land alone.''
Lowe urged supporters to stay vigilant and informed, and to be ready to protest again if needed.
Strategy and Policy Committee chairwoman Rachel Smith said the decision endorsed an undertaking by Mayor John Carter in June to ''pause'' SNA mapping.
That followed protests by tangata whenua, farmers and other landowners who said the proposal undermined their sovereignty and property rights, she said.
The council's decision was supported by Associate Environment Minister James Shaw and Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta — but it didn't relieve the council of its statutory obligation to protect significant species and habitats.
''Our decision provides a clear way forward for our draft District Plan, while acknowledging more direction is needed from central government on how to support landowners to protect significant species and habitats.''
The council's Strategy and Policy Committee initially considered three options for the thorny SNA issue.
They ranged from continuing with SNAs to replacing them with a policy giving effect to the National Policy Statement on Indigenous Biodiversity, which the government has, however, not yet completed.
In the end the committee rejected all three options, voting instead to continue with other elements of draft District Plan but delaying any decisions about how to give effect to higher planning rules — such as government biodiversity policy — until it had greater clarity from central government.
"Ignoring clear public feedback on SNAs was not an option and the committee was uncomfortable with aspects of the other options,'' Smith said.
The council's proposed District Plan is due to be publicly notified in December.