OPINION: Tensions are rising over the amount of productive farmland being taken up by forestry.
“Rural and farming families comprise the majority of landowners behind the more than 4400 covenants in New Zealand and they make this commitment to protect bush, wetlands and other areas of special biodiversity on their properties so they can be enjoyed for all future generations,” said Milne.
The Supreme Court ruled last week that a QEII National Trust covenant over a 400ha block near Tairua, on the Coromandel Peninsula, was valid.
The owner, a reclusive man who lived in squalor after a homestead on the property burnt down, established the covenant shortly before he died in 2003. The current owner has been trying to overturn it so the land can be subdivided for residential development.
QEII National Trust chief executive Mike Jebson said the ruling was the culmination of a five year battle through the High Court, Appeal Court and Supreme Court, all of which had now ruled in favour of the trust.
“It creates a really important precedent for the sanctity of covenants.”
Jebson said about 20% of all farms have some covenanted land.
“We’ve always worked closely with the farming community to support the intent of farmers to protect the lovely bits of native forest, wetlands and other special places on farmland.”
Milne said farmers were accused in some quarters of being no friend to the environment, yet farmers were pivotal in setting up the QEII National Trust 40 years ago.
“Rural landowners have been the instigators of more than two-thirds of QEII covenants since 1977 and a study last year by Waikato University estimated the opportunity costs associated with covenanted land in New Zealand is in the range of $443m to $638m,” she said.
“The total estimated maintenance on covenants is $25m a year. So farmers have plenty of skin in the game with this form of biodiversity protection and we’re delighted to see the courts rule in favour of the original landowner’s vision for protection in perpetuity vs a developer keen to turn a buck,” said Milne.
Jebson said the trust would early next year be defending another covenant in the High Court from a company that wants to quarry covenanted land on the edge of the Kaimai Range near Matamata.
“So this isn’t the only case of landowners who buy protected land then try to get the protection overturned so they can develop it; but our role as trustee is to support the intent of the original landowner to ensure this land is protected forever.”
“This Supreme Court decision will help us in terms of the sanctity of the covenant. It just shows how legally robust covenants are against the actions of new landowners who try to overturn them,” he said.