Wetlands label scuttles agriculture and elderly couple’s retirement dream

An elderly Hokitika couple are appealing to the government to buy their land, saying a significant wetland designation has made it impossible to sell or develop.

Juliette and Colin Henry bought their 120 ha block at Kōwhitirangi for $ 34,000 in 1974, hoping to one day cultivate it.

But as newlyweds, they weren’t willing to go into debt to develop the bloc, and later when they tried to borrow money, they were turned down.

“It has always been Colin’s dream to get into farming – he worked on his family farm from the age of 5 and then his father 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 taught for years and Colin fencing and worked for a mill … we were very thrifty.

Almost 50 years later, and their freehold block in Cropp Rd, with its clump and patches of regenerating kahikatea, is essentially a secluded, undeveloped island in the lush pastures of the surrounding dairy and deer farms.

The block was first cleared for lumber in the 1920s by a World War I veteran, who sold it to the Henrys.

Colin and Juliette Henry worked for decades to pay off their block on Cropp Rd in the Kōwhitirangi Valley, but a wetland designation wiped out its value.

Lois William / RNZ

Colin and Juliette Henry worked for decades to pay off their block on Cropp Rd in the Kōwhitirangi Valley, but a wetland designation wiped out its value.

The couple fenced it in, processed sphagnum moss in it for a while, and now graze a few sheep among the clump. The property appears to be dry and a large drain put in place via an easement, the traverse.

But it was first listed as an important wetland several years ago, after the West Coast Regional Council mapped and inventoried wetlands across the region.

The Henrys protested and submitted unsuccessfully against the designation.

“We went to these audiences, and here are all these men in suits with soft, callus-free hands telling us how we couldn’t use our land that we worked so hard for, and telling me to sit down and shut up… we only had 10 minutes to make our case… we felt so helpless.

In its decision, the Hearing Panel, headed by Commissioner Allan Cubitt, acknowledged the frustrations of landowners like the Henrys: “From what we understand, the Environmental Court ordered the addition of 215 wetlands at [regional council] plan, without any consultation with landowners … we share the frustration of the authors of such a process and find it unfortunate, but it is not something we can fix.

Without proof that the block was not a wetland, the commission could not remove it from the council’s list.

“No such evidence has been produced by the Henrys and therefore we cannot remove the wetland from the annex. We also cannot influence the payment of compensation… it is beyond our power and the scope of this process, ”the panel said at the time.

“The wetland” on one side of the road - and the lush pasture of a neighbor on the other - Colin Henry walks through the undeveloped land he once dreamed of farming.

Lois Williams / RNZ

“The wetland” on one side of the road – and the lush pasture of a neighbor on the other – Colin Henry walks through the undeveloped land he once dreamed of farming.

The Henrys say that if their land is so precious that it needs to be protected for the good of the nation, then the nation should buy it.

“We donated it to the Natural Heritage Fund, but they didn’t want it,” said Juliette Henry.

The fund committee told the Henrys that the land did not have as high a conservation value as the other proposed land and that in any event it was already protected in the land and water plan.

“So it’s too special to be developed, but not special enough to pay. We think if the government or Forest & Bird thinks it needs to be saved, they should buy it. Otherwise, it is essentially theft.

The Henrys also investigated the possibility of an exchange of land for other Crown land in the area.

“The government was trying to sell the old Lands and Survey farms in the Raft Creek Valley… Colin actually fenced off those farms and we thought maybe we could trade our block for one of them. But they wouldn’t, ”Juliette Henry said.

The irony is not lost on the Henrys: a government that not so long ago drained wetlands for state farms now laments the process and penalizes those who did not drain their own farms.

“We’re too old to farm now … that dream is over … but we thought we could at least have a legacy for the children of all these years of saving and hard work.” Now, it looks like that won’t happen either. “

The Henrys were offered $ 800,000 for their land a few years ago from a neighboring farmer.

“We didn’t sell because we knew this wetland thing was going to happen and he couldn’t have done anything with it… it would have been like bogus excuses to take his money.”

The block now has an appraisal of $ 450,000, according to Henrys’ rate claim. The couple never tested this by putting the property on the market, but local realtors say these days it would be hard to change.

Shari Ferguson, of PGG Wrightsons, says there is too much uncertainty about how the block could be used.

“Farm sales are picking up on the West Coast, but with a wetland, it’s impossible to say what it would bring. “

A wetland designation is a deciding factor for buyers, according to Dave Becker, also of Wrightsons.

“People are always looking for undeveloped land – it costs around $ 5,000 per hectare – but with a wetland, you might as well give it away: people just don’t want to know,” Becker said.

Meanwhile, other landowners in the valley who dug up their land years ago are sitting on pastures valued at $ 14,000 to $ 20,000 per hectare.

“We think the government should buy our property… they’re the ones who put this restriction on it – and affected the value… either buy it or take the wetland tag off it,” said Colin Henry.

But their chances of withdrawing the wetland designation are now almost nil.

Hadley Mills, chief science and planning officer for the West Coast Regional Council, said that before the National Environmental Standards (NES) for freshwater came into effect last year, landowners in the position de Henrys had more options, but not now.

“If your wetland was on Schedule 2 and it was ‘probably’ important, you could get a report from an environmentalist and find out if it was really important and if it wasn’t, it would come out. appendices to the Land and Water section of the council. Plan.”

But under the new freshwater regulations, the Henrys’ land would likely be considered an indoor wetland, triggering the NES rules, giving it an extra layer of protection, Mills said.

“Any wetland larger than 500 square meters is protected by the NES and we as a council have to map them all over the next 10 years … this is probably the biggest job of any council in New Zealand,” given the extent of the wetlands on the West Coast. “

Tasmanian West Coast MP Damien O’Connor did not respond to a request for comment on the Henry’s situation in Kōwhitirangi.

But National Party List MP Maureen Pugh, former mayor of Westland, said the couple deserved compensation.

“They basically lost their retirement funds because the government changed the rules. My point is that if the nation values ​​its land, the nation should pay. “

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