Community groups fear being shut out of environmental decisions under drastic new rules designed to speed up the planning process.
Greenpeace and the Environmental Defence Society said an almost tenfold hike in the cost of joining Environment Court appeals, coupled with a new threat of being asked to pay security for an opponent's court costs, would put people off defending their local environment.
The Government hopes raising the fee to lodge an appeal in the Environment Court from $55 to $500 will stop people deliberately delaying developments by lodging appeals with little merit.
It also plans to resurrect powers, earlier scrapped by Labour, allowing the court to require community groups to hand over a lump of cash up front. The money can be used later to pay a victorious opponent's court costs.
Environment Minister Nick Smith said the measures were needed to stop developments being delayed by incorporated societies that had little money, who ran up huge costs during appeals and then pleaded poor.
He said the $500 lodging fee was less than half what it cost the court to administer an appeal.
"If you can't find 10 mates who are prepared to put up $50 each to appeal a decision of your local council then I don't think we should waste the time of the Environment Court. That is not a lot of money in today's terms," he said.
But Greenpeace political adviser Geoff Keey said defending the local environment would become the preserve of the rich if the changes went ahead. New Zealand's environmental law relied on public participation to work - something would be compromised if costs rose, he said.
A second proposal, to limit appeals on planning rules to legal issues, has also alarmed environmental groups.
At the moment community groups and land owners who do not like the rules relating to their area regularly persuade the court to change the rules on a broad range of grounds. The Government hopes that by whittling the rights of appeal, the ponderously slow process of writing a district plan will gather speed.
Mr Smith said the process so slow some councils were still operating under old Town and Country Planning Act plans, 17 years after it was replaced by the Resource Management Act.
But Environmental Defence Society chairman Gary Taylor said limiting rights of appeal was a mistake.
Mr Taylor said the Government did not properly understand the role of the Environment Court - a specialist body that includes experts such as planners and landscape architects. "The Environment Court ...
provides a check on parish pump politics, or political dogma, or just bad judgment driving district plan making."
Mr Taylor said it was the court's intervention that had saved valuable areas such as the Queenstown Lakes and parts of Swanson in West Auckland from intense development - intervention that could not happen under the new rules.
But Mr Smith said the courts should not be rewriting planning rules anyway. "If you're hacked off with your council ... you should be looking to take political action and get a council that writes better rules."