An elderly Hokitika couple is appealing to the Government to buy their land, claiming a significant wetland designation has made it impossible to either sell or develop.
Juliette and Colin Henry bought their 120ha block at Kōwhitirangi for $34,000 in 1974, hoping one day to farm it.
But as young newlyweds, they were unwilling to go into debt to develop the block, and later when they tried to borrow the money, were turned down.
“It was always Colin’s dream to go farming – he slaved on his family farm from the age of 5, then his dad sold it,” Juliette told the Greymouth Star.
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“But we wanted to pay off the Kōwhitirangi block before we did anything with it – we had young children and we both worked. I was teaching for years and Colin did fencing and worked for a mill … we were very frugal.”
Nearly 50 years on, and their freehold block in Cropp Rd, with its tussock and patches of regenerating kahikatea, is basically a lone undeveloped island in the lush green pasture of surrounding dairy and deer farms.
The block was first cleared for timber in the 1920s by a World War I veteran, who sold it to the Henrys.
The couple fenced it, processed sphagnum moss there for a time, and now graze a few sheep among the tussock. The property appears dry and a large drain put in via an easement, runs through it.
But it was first classed as a significant wetland several years ago, after the West Coast Regional Council mapped and listed wetlands throughout the region.
The Henrys protested, and submitted in vain against the designation.
“We went to these hearings, and here were all these men in suits with soft hands and no calluses telling us how we couldn’t use our land we worked so hard for, and telling me to sit down and be quiet … we only had 10 minutes to put our case … we felt so powerless.”
In its decision, the hearings panel, led by commissioner Allan Cubitt, acknowledged the frustrations of landowners like the Henrys: “As we understand it, the Environment Court ordered the addition of 215 wetlands to the [regional council] plan, without any consultation with the landowners … we share the submitters’ frustration with such a process and find it regrettable, but it is not something we can rectify.”
Without evidence showing the block was not a wetland, the panel could not take it off the council list.
“No such evidence was produced by the Henrys and hence we cannot remove the wetland from the schedule. Nor can we influence the payment of compensation … this is outside our power and the scope of this process,” the panel said at the time.
The Henrys say if their land is so precious that it must be protected for the good of the nation, then the nation should buy it.
“We offered it to the Nature Heritage Fund, but they didn’t want it,” Juliette Henry said.
The fund committee told the Henrys the land was not as high in conservation value as other land on offer, and in any case, it was already protected in the Land and Water Plan.
“So it’s too special to develop but not special enough to pay for. We think if the Government or Forest & Bird think it needs to be saved they should front up and buy it. Otherwise, it’s basically theft.”
The Henrys also investigated the possibility of a land swap, for other Crown land in the area.
“The government was trying to sell the old Lands and Survey farms in the valley at Raft Creek … Colin actually fenced those farms and we thought maybe we could swap out our block for one of those. But they wouldn’t do it,” Juliette Henry said.
The irony is not lost on the Henrys: a government that not so long ago drained wetlands for state farms now deplores the process, and penalises those who did not drain their own farms.
“We are too old to go farming now … that dream is over … but we had thought we might at least have a legacy to leave the kids from all the years of saving and hard work. Now it looks like that’s not going to happen either.”
The Henrys were offered $800,000 for their land some years ago, by a neighbouring farmer.
“We didn’t sell because we knew this wetland thing was coming and he wouldn’t have been able to do anything with it … it would have been like false pretences to take his money.”
The block now has a valuation of $450,000, according to the Henrys’ rates demand.The couple has never tested that by putting the property on the market, but local real estate agents say these days it would be hard to shift.
Shari Ferguson, of PGG Wrightsons, says there is too much uncertainty over how the block could be used.
“Farm sales are picking up again on the West Coast, but with a wetland it’s impossible to say what it would fetch.”
A wetland designation is a deal-breaker for buyers, according to Dave Becker, also of Wrightsons.
“People are always looking for undeveloped land – it goes for about $5000 a hectare – but with a wetland, you might as well give it away: people just don’t want to know,” said Becker.
Meanwhile, other landowners in the valley who dug up their land years ago are sitting on pasture valued at $14,000 to $20,000 a hectare.
“We think the government should buy our property … they’re the ones who’ve put this restriction on it – and affected the value … either buy it or take the wetland label off it,” Colin Henry said.
But their chances of removing the wetland designation are now next to zero.
West Coast Regional Council science and planning manager Hadley Mills says before the National Environmental Standards (NES) for freshwater came into force last year, landowners in the Henrys’ position had more options, but not now.
“If your wetland was on schedule 2, and ‘likely’ to be significant, you could get an ecologist’s report and find out if it actually was significant and if it wasn’t, it would come off the schedules in the council’s Land and Water Plan.”
But under the new freshwater regulations, the Henrys’ land would probably be considered an inland wetland, and that would trigger the NES rules, giving it an added layer of protection, Mills said.
“Any wetland over 500 square metres is protected under the NES and we as a council have to map them all over the next 10 years … it’s probably the biggest job of any council in New Zealand, given the extent of wetlands on the West Coast.”
West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O’Connor did not respond to a request for comment on the Henrys’ situation at Kōwhitirangi.
But National Party list MP Maureen Pugh, a former Westland mayor, said the couple deserved compensation.
“They have essentially lost their retirement fund because the Government has changed the rules. My view is that if the nation values their land, the nation should pay.”