Auckland landowners who have locked away blocks to serve as conservation refuges are up in arms over a council proposal that would scrap the rates remissions they've long received in return.
It's forced the QEII National Trust to fight Auckland Council over the move and prompted a plea from one of New Zealand's biggest environment groups.
QEII open space covenants are created when landowners voluntarily enter into a binding legal agreement with the trust that preserves a piece of land in perpetuity, safeguarding it from development by future owners.
More than 4000 are now registered with the trust, and the vast areas of land they cover - preserving bush, wetlands, wildlife habitats and cultural sites - are considered a crucial part of conservation in New Zealand.
Some of the former councils that now make up Auckland Council offered rates remission for covenantors, and the council was now consulting on scrapping those "legacy" policies.
In their place, the council has proposed to replace them with grants, which over the next three years would match what the covenants would have been spared in remissions.
But, after that period, the council would decide how those grants fitted into its wider funding strategies.
QEII National Trust chief executive Mike Jebson said covenantors made a large contribution to conservation by protecting their land, forever.
The trust had been flooded with calls and emails from them over the proposal.
"This contribution to habitat protection, biodiversity and conservation is far beyond most other landowners," Jebson said.
"We believe the council needs to recognise the contribution made by these landowners in protecting indigenous biodiversity, natural landscape and the many other unquantifiable community services."
Jebson said the trust had a "very productive relationship" with the council, but this policy had taken it in the wrong direction.
"We should be seeing rates remission as well as grants for habitat protection and conservation, not this policy," he said.
"We don't have a choice but to fight this policy on behalf of our members and covenantors, recognising the contribution these land owners make is the right thing to do on behalf of all New Zealanders."
A recent study found that on average, QEII covenantors were spending $64,108 to establish covenants over their land to protect its values.
The research also found that each covenantor on average invests a further $5,964 annually to maintain and enhance each piece of protected land.
"This huge investment by landowners puts in perspective the $59,000 annually currently offered in rates remission by the Auckland council against an estimated expenditure each year by the 291 Auckland covenantors of $1.663m to support the regions biodiversity," Jebson said.
"Our members are submitting that the council needs to recognise the role and contribution of conservation on privately owned land to the region by agreeing that covenanted land is non-rateable."
The trust maintained that this was provided for in the Local Government
(Rating) Act 2002, and that the council charging rates on land protected with the National Trust ran contrary to it.
Environmental Defence Society chief executive Gary Taylor said the council needed to reverse direction on this issue.
"It's important that the public interest in landowners permanently and rigorously protecting their land is recognised by Auckland Council by providing rating remission, as is done by many other councils throughout New Zealand," Taylor said.
"It's an important acknowledgement that QEII covenanted land is subject to additional protection."
The council's financial policy manager, Andrew Duncan, told the Herald the
current rates remission policies were "not equitable Auckland-wide".
"We strongly value the ecological protection that QEII covenants provide for our threatened animal and plant species," Duncan said.
"These changes will not diminish the protections that have been put in place, nor does it reduce the level of support the council offers.
"Instead, this proposal is intended as a transitional step towards the development of a more equitable and transparent system of support for those individuals and organisations who care for Auckland's environment."
Duncan said the council had proposed that remissions be transferred to grants because grants offered "greater transparency, accountability, and better alignment with the council's broader strategy of supporting this activity".
People had until next Friday, April 13, to make submissions.