By BRIDGET CARTER
The Kaipara District Council has won Maori Land Court backing for a test case to force Maori trust landowners to pay rates.
After a 10-year battle, the council's chief executive, Jack McKerchar, admits the council has spent far more than the $5000 it believes it is owed, but wants to send a clear message that ratepayers cannot hide behind Maori multiple ownership.
"We can't just let people off," he said. "If we don't pursue the rates on this one, why should others pay?"
The case relates to 92.3ha of Maori land at Tinopai on the Kaipara Harbour administered by the Miru Family Trust.
In the Maori Land Court this week, Judge Andrew Spencer found the council had taken all reasonable steps to collect rates off the trustees and issued the council with a charging order. Outside court, Mr McKerchar said the order allowed the council to take further action to seize assets from six trustees if rates continued to go unpaid on the land.
He noted one of the trustees had a $27,000 Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Trustee Mikaera Miru said the council had no right to charge rates over the property and if it tried to take assets off trustees there would be a full-scale war. "This is not land we have bought, this is land that has a spiritual connection," he said.
There are four houses on the Miru Family Trust land, which sits on the edge of the Kaipara Harbour.
There is a private road into the property with a sign telling people the land is Maori land and to keep out.
The rates on the property are $640 a year.
Mr McKerchar said some of the trustees had paid rates, but the debts hanging over the land were now just over $5000.
The council had taken the case to court twice before.
Trustees were ordered to pay rates by the Maori Land Court nearly 10 years ago.
When trustees did not honour that decision, the matter wound up back in court and a year ago a district court judge ruled that there were nearly $4000 of debts owed by the trust to the council.
The third case was a test case for Northland, Mr McKerchar said. "It's just to make it clear to them that they don't have the option of going to the Maori Land Court and saying it is not rateable."
Despite the court ruling that the Miru Family Trust land is freehold, Mr Miru said it was customary Maori land and should not be rated. He had written to Prime Minister Helen Clark about the matter.
"No one is going to come on this land and breach our rights," he said.
"The rednecks are going to say: 'They only have a little bit of rates to pay, why don't they pay it?'
"The real issue is that the judges have the power to change the land to Maori customary land and they refuse to do it."
Mr McKerchar said the council had reached arrangements with others in Kaipara on Maori land who had tried to say they did not need to pay rates on similar grounds.
Rates on Maori land
* There is 10,000ha of Maori land in the Kaipara District and $340,000 of unpaid rates on it. In the Far North District, rates owing on Maori land total $19 million.
Maori Customary Land
* All land held by Maori not transferred into freehold titles by the Maori Land Court or handed to the Crown.
* Before 1840, all land was regarded as Maori customary land.
* Today the total area of Maori customary land is unknown, but believed to be relatively minor.
Maori Freehold Land
* Any land other than general land owned by Maori as a beneficial estate. Falls under the jurisdiction of the Maori Land Court.
* General land means any other than Maori not owned by the Crown.
By BRIDGET CARTER