Resource Management Act - Waitomo District Plan

Max Harris, District Planner, Waitomo District Council, 55 Denny Hulme Drive, Mt Maunganui, NZ

Under the Town & Country Planning Act 1953, the Waitomo District Council produced a District Plan which included an Amenity Zone. That zone covered features of high amenity value and served as a flag warning developers and decision makers that there was something precious in the area, and that if development was to occur the identified feature must be further examined and protected. The zone covered bush, bluffs, and about twenty caves identified by the New Zealand Speleological Society.

To a degree that zoning concept has worked in that it has heightened awareness of the district's special features. Many of the identified areas have since been formally preserved, often by Queen Elizabeth II or private covenants. On the other hand, in a caving sense, the zoning pattern has not worked as well as it might because the caves were often ill defined, and some development by enthusiastic entrepreneurs has ignored Amenity Zone concepts.

Under the Resource Management Act 1991, a district plan must be prepared reflecting the sustainable management and stronger environmental themes of that legislation. In the meantime the old district plan has transitional status.

There is of course a need to achieve balance in any district plan. S. 5 of the Act relates to its purpose:

(1) The purpose of this Act is to promote the sustainable management of natural and physical resources.

(2) in this Act, "sustainable management" means managing the use, development and protection of natural and physical resources in a way, or at a rate, which enables people and communities to provide for their social, economic, and cultural well-being and for their health and safety while:

(a) sustaining the potential of natural and physical resources (excluding minerals) to meet the reasonably foreseeable needs of future generations; and
(b) safeguarding the life supporting capacity of air, water, soil, and ecosystems; and
(c) avoiding, remedying, or mitigating any adverse effects of activities on the environment."

The environment is defined as:

(a) ecosystems and their constituent parts, including people and communities; and
(b) natural and physical resources; and
(c) amenity values;
(d) the social, economic, aesthetic and cultural conditions which effect the matters stated in paragraphs (a) to (c) in this definition or which are affected by those matters."

You may recognise that this is a much wider interpretation of environment than those natural features which many would associate with a word. In Resource Management Act terms then there must be recognition of all aspects of the environment which in the context of this discussion might include traditional farming, exotic forestry, roading, and adventure tourism. Education becomes a major factor. For example, it was only a few years ago that the farming community was operating under a concept of supplementary minimum prices and land development encouragement loans which in combination produced a significant effort into the development of marginal rural lands. Now the theme of the legislation seeks preservation of significant lands, a 180 degree change of direction which cannot be expected to be accepted overnight.

S.6 of the Act relates to matters of national importance.

S6 (b) requires:

"the protection of outstanding natural features in landscapes from inappropriate subdivision, use, and development. "

Council has prepared issue documents outlining areas to be addressed and sought feedback from the community. As a result of that feedback Council is developing its district plan which in draft form presently states:

"12.1.4 limestone caves and associated karst landscape are a specific feature of the Waitomo District. The effects of land development and other human activities on cave and karst systems are somewhat uncertain and is a subject of continuing scientific studies. However there is sufficient concern about some forms of development such as quarrying or large scale land disturbance to mean that some rules are needed to ensure that effects on the cave and karst systems are considered. Some of the cave systems are of national or international significance and would be outstanding natural features in terms of the Resource Management Act."

Council's first objective in the Rural Zone is:

"to ensure that significant karst and cave systems, especially those used for tourism in the Waitomo catchment, are protected from adverse effects arising from land development and disturbance."
Council's first rural policy is:
"to avoid, remedy or mitigate any adverse effects of vegetation clearance, extractive industry or other rural activities on karst and cave systems, with the approach dependent on the significance and sensitivity of the particular cave or karst features."

Additionally policy 10 requires:

"to avoid, remedy or mitigate the visual and landscape effects of the removal of indigenous vegetation and damage or destruction of significant landscape features such a limestone bluffs, or karst features, which contribute to the amenity of the rural area."

Usual criteria for assessment of significance of a site include representativeness, biological diversity, rarity, naturalness, special features, size and shape. In the Waitomo District there are large areas already within the Conservation Estate and therefore representative samples of many features are already captured. In assessing significant areas to be protected, it is important to recognise the threats against which protection is necessary.

There may be issues relating to adequate identification of caves in a spatial sense to adequately meet legal requirements, as against the need for discretion in publicly describing a precious area which may be particularly vulnerable. In this context a similar problem occurs with some sites precious to Maori.

The identification and relative ranking of karst and cave features is beyond the expertise within Council. It is therefore necessary for those knowledgeable in these areas to have input into the preparation of the district plan. Council needs your help.

Subsequent to the conference Mr Dave Smith of the Department of Conservation, Te Kuiti, has liaised with other speleologists and has produced a list of caves and supporting descriptions. The caves lie in five categories:

(a) of international importance
(b) of national importance
(c) of regional importance
(d) of high local importance
(e) of average local importance.

Quite large areas of the Waitomo District are affected by the identified caves.

Additionally the general extent of the caves has been marked on 1:50,000 topographical plans. Entry positions are not shown — just the extent of the land where the cave is believed to lie. In turn, the cave mapping and descriptions have been included in the draft District Plan. Rules are being developed to give strong protection to those caves of international and national importance, and more modest protection for the lower rated caves.

More work may be needed to better describe the cave and yet to maintain its anonymity. Additionally more work may be needed to adequately rate the cave in its relative importance. More work will be needed in developing adequate rules to protect the cave as well as recognising legitimate rural activity on private lands.

Council's plan will be available in draft form to interested groups and individuals through all sectors of the community for feedback. It is expected that the process will enable fine-tuning of some issues. Having considered informal suggestions during that draft process Council will then revise the draft and publish the district plan as a proposal within the terms of the Act. Formal submissions may then be received.