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Frank Newman

Orange – a sign of our green times

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One knows all is not well within local government when a council makes national news for something as trivial as a road sign (HERE).

In this case that council is the Whangarei District Council. Here’s some of the background.

In 2005 a local business person placed a sign (no larger than an election hoarding) on an existing frame on private property set well off the road in a paddock some 30 metres from a local road. I drive the road regularly and can only vaguely recall seeing the (orange) sign.

Located nearby was a (blue) sign of a similar size promoting the services of a nearby quarry. That too had been there for many years, and was something I had actually noticed as it was closer to the road.

In May 2010 both sign owners received threatening letters from the Council requiring them to remove their sign within 5 days or else “enforcement action may ensue pursuant to the provisions of the Resource Management Act 1991”.

Being fine upstanding members of the community – and not wishing to potentially spend up to two-years in prison for breaching the RMA – each completed the required forms and paid the requisite $1,000 application fee.

Things went well for the owner of the blue sign. They received a consent without any difficulties. Not so the orange sign owner. It seems the Council has a problem with orange in a green landscape. On 6 December 2012 Council’s Principal Planner wrote to the offending orange sign owner as follows,

“…the effects of the sign are clearly more than minor and that Council will proceed with notification of the application, which is required by the Resource Management Act. You will be invoiced for costs associated with full public notification, the preparation of a report with recommendations to a Commissioner (to decline) and costs associated with a hearing should you or any submitter request to be heard, as well as Commissioner costs for a decision on the application. I confirm your advice that you will be contacting your solicitor and that Council will receive correspondence from you on this matter today. Please advise by C.O.B. today if you wish to withdraw the application, otherwise Council will proceed with the preparation of notification documentation, for which you will be invoiced.”

The Council estimated that additional cost of public notification would be $3,500. In the end the orange sign owner gave up and removed the sign. But that was not the end of the matter. They subsequently received a further invoice from the Council for$3,285.51 for staff time processing the now abandoned consent. The orange sign owner disputed the account, and raised the matter with their local councillor, whose only offer of assistance was advice to the effect that the account should be paid.

It is hard to believe that the effects of a sign that had been up for five years and hardly noticeable could, according to Council’s Principal Planner, be “clearly more than minor”. It shows how absurdly subjective the Resource Management Act is. Presumably, the effect of the blue sign was “NO more than minor”, given it was processed without public notification. Clearly in the opinion of Council staff, blue is good and orange is not. While having a personal preference is fine – it’s not fine when that opinion is imposed on others via the RMA.

As it happens the Council recently published the results of an annual customer satisfaction survey. It showed 34% of people who deal with the council’s consents department were dissatisfied with the service. If the processing of consents is as capricious as the colours blue and orange, then it’s hardly surprising that so many people are dissatisfied.

Unfortunately when a council treats people badly, everyone suffers. I have no doubt those who listened to the Radio NZ story would be thinking, “If this is how they treated the owner of a sign, how would they treat a serious project?” When such obstacles are placed in the way of developers, there is little wonder the Northland economy is at the wrong end of the economic and social statistics. If Northland’s political leaders really do want to grow their local economy they need to welcome and embrace enterprise and initiative by making the consent process easier.

It is examples like this that show the need to reform the RMA and why central government should do so quickly, without being obstructed by small political parties representing fragments of the population. If they were to inhibit the extent of the RMA reforms they would be exerting an influence vastly disproportionate to their relevance to the political landscape.

The RMA needs urgent reform to streamline the processing of minor consents (like signs), and go further to impose national definitions and criteria upon councils; for example the definition of an outstanding landscape and the criteria to be used to assess significance.

Some time ago I assisted an aggrieved landowner to form a lobby group called the Landowners Coalition. That group has grown from 1 to 500 in just over a year.

The purpose of the group is to oppose the latest attempt by a local council to “identify the regions coastal land and outstanding areas”.

The Chairman of the Northland Regional Council justified the review on the grounds that councils are required to comply with the New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement 2010. Indeed page 7 of the NZCPS 2010 says, “regional policy statements, regional plans and district plans must give effect to this NZCPS” as required by the Resource Management Act (RMA). In other words, he said their hand was forced.

That NZCPS was written by DoC and signed off by the Minister of Conservation, and it shows. For example, Policy 13(2) says that recognising natural character may include matters such as:

a. natural elements, processes and patterns;
b. biophysical, ecological, geological and geomorphological aspects;
c. natural landforms such as headlands, peninsulas, cliffs, dunes, wetlands, reefs, freshwater springs and surf breaks;
d. the natural movement of water and sediment;
e. the natural darkness of the night sky;
f. places or areas that are wild or scenic;
g. a range of natural character from pristine to modified; and
h. experiential attributes, including the sounds and smell of the sea; and their context or setting.

Like the judgement that the colour orange creates more than minor effects, judging natural character is equally as subjective when it is expressed in such an esoteric, almost poetic, way.

It’s time the subjectivity was removed from planners who tend to see the world through a different lens than most.

Central government should give strong directions to local government, directions such as road signs are to be treated as non-notified consents, and processed within say two days; and clear directions as to what exactly is a significant landscape or natural area worth preservation.

Without that clarity and certainly, the application of the RMA will forever remain at the discretion of a planner – and that’s bad news if you happen to want an orange road sign in Whangarei.