A decades-long legal battle over a small beachfront reserve adjoining a Bay of Islands boatyard has ended in a hefty payout for the boatyard owner and an even bigger bill for his opponents.
Late last year the Supreme Court ruled that easements used by Doug's Opua Boatyard owner Doug Schmuck and granted by the Far North District Council were valid.
The judges' decision, which is final and can't be appealed, reverses an earlier decision in the Court of Appeal. Essentially it allows Schmuck to use part of the public reserve for his boat repair business.
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Since then the Supreme Court has also ruled on costs, ordering the Opua Coastal Preservation Society to pay Schmuck $20,000 and the Far North District Council $15,000.
That's not the end of the bad news for the society, which has also been ordered to pay ''disbursements'' — extra costs incurred by legal advisers on their client's behalf — which are likely to add several thousand dollars to both bills.
Schmuck was previously ordered to pay costs after losing in the Court of Appeal but that decision will now be revisited.
He won in the High Court but no immediate decision was made about costs. That court has now also been directed to make a ruling on costs, likely adding to Schmuck's payout.
The society argued that Supreme Court costs should have been allowed to ''lie where they fall'', meaning that everyone would pay their own legal bills, because the society had fought its case in the public interest.
That was strongly contested by both Schmuck and the council, with Schmuck arguing the society's members had acted in their personal interest and were driven by animosity towards him.
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The council said even if the case had been in the public interest the way the society had conducted the litigation meant it shouldn't be given any leeway on costs.
The court's five judges agreed that the society had tried to broaden the scope of the proceedings to include issues which hadn't been considered in lower courts, but wouldn't get involved in the allegations of personal animosity.
They agreed there was ''limited'' public interest in the society's position so they reduced the amount paid to Schmuck from the usual $30,000 paid to successful parties after a one-and-a-half day hearing.
Schmuck said he was pleased with the costs decision, even though it was a fraction of the amount he had spent on legal fees during the 25-year dispute.
He earlier estimated he had spent $500,000 and the Far North District Council much more.
''This whole decision is a vindication of 25 years of nonsense. People don't understand the consequences of what they do until it hits them in the pocket. It's like a speeding ticket. Only then do people think, 'damn, I'd better slow down'.''
It is, however, not the end of Schmuck's battles.
In late 2018 the Northland Regional Council declined a series of consents for boatyard activities on the grounds of adverse environmental effects.
Schmuck has challenged that decision with a High Court hearing due to take place next month.
Several members of the Opua Coastal Preservation Society travelled to Wellington for the Supreme Court hearing.
Chairman Henry Nissen said the society was seeking legal advice about the costs decision so he didn't want to comment at this point.
Earlier, however, he said the society had been ''very surprised'' the court had given an individual the right to benefit from a reserve, and questioned the point of a Reserves Act that allowed public space to be used for private business.
''Our society did all it could to protect our only grassy beachfront reserve for unrestricted public enjoyment and unfortunately lost the fight.''
The society was founded in 2014. No financial statement was lodged in 2019 but in 2018 it had $2587 in the bank. Its income that year included $2303 in donations and $25,807 in legal payments.