Small district wins big victory over ‘negative impacts’ of logging industry

Wairoa District Council has won a major legal battle against the forestry sector.  (File photo)

Dominico Zapata / Stuff

Wairoa District Council has won a major legal battle against the forestry sector. (File photo)

A small district in a badly deprived area has won a major victory over the forestry sector as a judge agreed that a council had the right to raise tariffs on forest land due to ‘negative community welfare’ “.

The NZ Forest Owners Association Inc. has failed in its application for judicial review by the High Court of Wairoa District Council’s decision to raise rates on forest land.

Members of the association own approximately 52,000 hectares in the district.

The council, which has a small rating base of around 8300, has overhauled its system to make rates more affordable for residents and smaller commercial properties.

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Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said community well-being and affordability of fares

Tom Kitchin/RNZ

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said community well-being and fare affordability “were at the forefront of our decision-making.” (File photo)

The changes increased rates for high-value properties, although this did not allow the council to collect more rates.

Forestry was the hardest hit, with 115 forest sector taxpayers paying an additional $334,000. The increase is due to additional costs for road maintenance and an “increase to reflect the negative community welfare impacts of industry on the district”.

The review was heard by Judge Christine Grice at Gisborne High Court in February.

The association argued that the rating decision was “unfair and unreasonable and in particular wrongly targeted forestry because it was wealthy”.

He said the council failed to consider environmental wellbeing and climate change and incorrectly assumed that forestry was the cause of the negative wellbeing.

Wairoa, in northern Hawke's Bay, has a population of approximately 8,300.  The median individual income was just $22,600.  (File photo)

Wairoa District Council / Supplied

Wairoa, in northern Hawke’s Bay, has a population of approximately 8,300. The median individual income was just $22,600. (File photo)

He also said the council used the Classification Act as a means of discouraging the conversion of productive land to forestry “because it had no power to regulate against the conversion of agricultural land to forestry”.

Wairoa Mayor Craig Little told the court that community well-being and affordability of rates “are at the forefront of our decision-making” and that he recognizes that forestry is an important industry, but that its benefits were widely appreciated outside Wairoa.

The court heard the district’s median individual income was just $22,600, employment levels had fallen and the unemployment rate had risen to 7.2% in 2018.

Forest plantations in the district had increased significantly during this period.

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In a ruling issued last week, Judge Grice dismissed all of the association’s claims.

She said a council was “obligated to act in accordance with principles, including the promotion of the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of its community”, and had the right to make any rate adjustment that ‘He did.

She said that the council was entitled to take into account that forest land yielded more than other land, and that it was entitled to conclude that forestry had a negative impact on the well-being of the community.

She also noted that forestry lacked the constraints faced by others “due to incentives such as the Billion Tree Fund and grants such as carbon credit grants”, and that the council was entitled to take them into account, whether the forest owners claim the subsidy or not.

The application was dismissed on all grounds.

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