The Waikato Regional Council is looking into the clearing of a designated Significant Natural Area (SNA) site in Matarangi linked to a new housing development.

But Forest & Bird said the desecration could have been avoided given the Thames-Coromandel District Council was told by the property developer’s contractor in August last year the work was going to happen.

“The purpose of this letter is just to give you a heads-up on some vegetation clearance that Beaches development is about to undertake on their rural land that sits east of the shopping centre,” the letter said.

“Whilst there are a couple of nice trees in this area (retained), there is an awful lot of scrub and pine/gum which Winton want to get under control. They are going to get a contractor in to shred the foliage.

“The other land in the middle will be cleared. The land will be mulched and the mulch left on the ground as groundcover.”

The land sits at 151 Matarangi Drive, a 36-hectare plot between the local council’s wastewater treatment plant and the refuse centre.

Just over half of the plot is considered by the Waikato Regional Council to be an SNA.

Section 6 of the Resource Management Act requires SNAs be protected.

Forest & Bird freshwater advocate Tom Kay said the activity was brought to the group’s attention in May and he followed up with the council immediately.

“Thames-Coromandel [said] we’ve looked through the plan [and] SNAs aren’t listed in the plan. We’ve got rules that permit vegetation clearance if it’s exotics and this is all exotics, because it’s gum trees and scrub. So… no big deal.”

“And we went back and said when we look at the SNA report and other information we’ve got, it says that this is intact wetland underneath gum trees with mānuka scrub, which [is] native.”

“TCDC appears to have enabled this clearance to be undertaken with very little (if any) assessment… despite the known presence of a wetland and SNA.” – Tom Kay, Forest & Bird

The Waikato Regional Council designated the area an SNA through a desktop assessment but it has not been added to the local council’s district plan despite the confidence level being “high”, meaning there was comprehensive and reliable ecological information available.

Despite initial assurances the work was above board, Thames-Coromandel District Council looked into the issue further in early June and an investigation report conceded there was a wetland but that the clearance was about 70 metres from it.

“No destruction of the wetland or wildlife habitat was found,” the report said.

“A site inspection has been completed and it was found that an area of vegetation clearance has been undertaken at 151 Matarangi Drive in several areas totalling approximately 35 percent of the overall site.”

Kay said that was a “gross underestimation” based off drone footage supplied to Forest & Bird.

In mid-June, Forest & Bird wrote to both councils urging them to take the issue more seriously.

“TCDC appears to have enabled this clearance to be undertaken with very little (if any) assessment of the impact against their district plan (or any other relevant regulations), and without notifying WRC of the activity, despite the known presence of a wetland and SNA.

“TCDC does not seem to have sent an ecologist out to assess the significance of the area, despite it being identified as an SNA (albeit not formally listed in the district plan).”

The letter said more should have been, and still could be, done.

“We consider the vegetation clearance could have been avoided if TCDC had alerted WRC to the potential clearance when it was notified of the developer’s intentions by letter of 12 August 2021 and both councils had acted together (with a suitably qualified ecologist) to assess the area, the potential clearance, and any consent requirements, and to ensure the developer did not take any action without further guidance.

“We consider the vegetation clearance was not allowed, all works at the site must cease, and remediation work must be undertaken to restore the values of the wetland to the extent possible.”

Forest & Bird also wrote to the developer, Winton, but has not received a reply. Winton did not respond to Newsroom.

At the end of June the regional council decided to step in.

“We regularly take this step when we become aware of something that is either particularly serious, complex, or of elevated public interest. This move in no way denotes any outcome, or likelihood of enforcement action,” the regional compliance manager wrote to Forest & Bird last week.

A Thames-Coromandel council spokesperson would not answer Newsroom’s questions on why the site had been allowed to be cleared, citing the new investigation.

“Given the nature of the investigation, we consider WRC to be the lead agency. Therefore, we are assisting the regional council and to protect the integrity of their ongoing investigation, no other information can be provided.”

Waikato Regional Council responded similarly.

“On 23 May 2022 Waikato Regional Council received reports of vegetation clearance at a site in Matarangi. Inquiries are underway to determine if there have been any breaches of the regional plan rules or Resource Management Act. To protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation, no other information can be provided.”

Kay said there was a massive loss of oversight by both councils.

“At the moment the [National Environmental Standards] don’t allow clearance of vegetation of wetlands at all, there’s no pathway, which is why the Government is changing the rules at the moment to open a pathway.

“We have really strict wetland rules at the moment and this still happens… and we’re talking about loosening the rules further.”

The Ministry for the Environment said it was aware of the investigation but did not get involved in individual matters.

Emma Hatton is a business reporter based in Wellington.

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