Fight to protect wetland that never existed costs regional council over $500,000

Part of the Whiteman's Valley area which the GWRC said was a wetland in need of protection.

Provided

Part of the Whiteman’s Valley area which the GWRC said was a wetland in need of protection.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council is set to pay nearly half a million dollars in legal fees after a complete loss in environmental court.

And, in what is seen as an unprecedented court decision against a regional council, they may also have to pay court costs.

The GWRC had applied to the court for enforcement orders protecting Upper Hutt’s Whiteman’s Valley Wetlands.

But the court concluded that there was no wetland.

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Environmental Court Judge Brian Dwyer and Environmental Commissioners David Bunting and Ruth Bartlett had said the council had failed by a “massive margin”.

Environmental Court Judge Brian Dwyer.

Maarten Holl / Stuff

Environmental Court Judge Brian Dwyer.

Costs are not always awarded in environmental court cases, although a party is often ordered to pay a contribution to the winning party’s legal costs.

The board agreed that this was a rare and exceptional case that warranted full reimbursement to the parties of their actual costs.

These costs were incurred by three different groups of lawyers and expert witnesses who acted for property developer Stuart Adams, the landowners who purchased sections from him, and the Upper Hutt Town Council, which granted consent to the resources.

The combined bill for defending the case was over $482,000. This followed a two-week trial in which the regional council filed nearly 3,000 pages of evidence.

The Upper Hutt Whiteman's Valley lands were challenged in the Environmental Court as wetlands.

Sarah Kerkin / Stuff

The Upper Hutt Whiteman’s Valley lands were challenged in the Environmental Court as wetlands.

It does not include the council’s own legal fees.

In a rare step, the environmental tribunal has asked the regional council to comment on whether it should also pay the tribunal for its lost time. The court has yet to issue a decision on its own costs.

Adams’ attorney, Stephen Iorns, said orders for the court’s own costs were extremely rare.

“Such a sentence against a regional council is unprecedented. The court’s indication that it is considering this, coupled with GWRC agreeing to pay all other parties’ costs in full, highlights a truly spectacular failure. This case should never have been taken.

The case concerned an approved housing estate which already had a few houses. The regional council saw typical agricultural work taking place and sent a notice ordering the work to be stopped and the wetlands restored.

MARTIN DE RUYTER/STUFF

Coastal wetlands could be an important source of carbon credits – blue carbon – to support restoration projects and support fragile ecosystems (video first published in October).

They dismissed an expert report that the developer had said all wetlands were excluded from it.

But their case was thrown out after they failed to prove there were any wetlands that needed protection or weren’t excluded under the Wetlands Management Act. resources.

In an email to staff, GWRC chief executive Nigel Corry said: ‘In essence, our delineation of wetlands and our interpretation of the national guidelines was not sufficient in the eyes of the tribunal, which was in fact very criticism of our case. We will now seek to strengthen our processes around many aspects of wetland management.

He said the council had accepted the judgment and would review their systems, including seeking more advice on identifying wetlands.

Elna M. Lemons