RMA Reform Likely to Become Law
Last December Government’s long foreshadowed reforms of the Resource Management Act received their first reading in Parliament.
The proposed changes are mild, and while they lean toward a developer’s perspective, they are likely to become law without too strident an opposition.
Of note for rural areas, the Bill would enable the making of regulations that require stock to be excluded from waterways (particular waterways or more generally). That echoes the Land and Water Forum’s recommendation to exclude livestock from waterways on plains and lowland hills. At this stage the intended regulations are not out – so I cannot elaborate on them, to where they apply, or the exceptions that will no doubt be important. But this is a clear signal that the rules are on their way.
That issue aside, what follows is a summary of the changes that I suspect may be of more interest to you.
Much of the criticism of the current system surrounds the costs, delays, or in some circumstances the need, for resource consents. The proposed changes set out to address all of those concerns by reducing the number resource consent applications that may be required, more tightly limiting third party involvement, and by providing applicants with greater certainty around costs.
The Bill would allow a council to waive the requirement for resource consent where the proposed activity requires the consent due to a marginal or temporary non-compliance with the rules. To be eligible for a waiver the effects on the environment would need to be within what the rules allow and any effects on a person must be less than minor.
Similarly, if the need for consent comes from a boundary infringement, and the relevant neighbour has given their approval, the activity will be treated as if it were a permitted activity. This may be an important change for developers. They often own both sides of a new subdivision’s internal boundary so they can “sign-off ” on their own boundary infringements issues.
The Bill narrows who may seek to object to your recourse consent application, with a notable emphasis on facilitating residential subdivision and development.
Finally, in a move that is sure to please many larger developers the financial contributions regime will be phased out in favour of the less bespoke development contributions approach. While development contributions can be rough and ready and as such may be unfair to some and generous to others, their determinability makes them easier to factor into the early assessment of a project’s viability.
The setting of the objectives, policies, and rules in district and regional plans is perhaps the most important, but least understood, part of the RMA process. It is like the setting out of a road network, along which the vehicles of resource consent applications must later pass to gain approval. That framework is often said to reflect “community expectations”, yet most of the community only discover those expectations when it is too late to change them – during a due diligence, when they later discover that their project is not okay, or that their neighbours’ intentions are okay.
A reason for public disinterest may be the complexity of the process, and the Bill seeks to reduce that complexity. The Bill gives two additional process options: a “collaborative” option, or a “streamlined” option. The current process also remains as the default setting. The primary difference between these three options is the timing and degree of public involvement.
The collaborative option puts an emphasis on early public involvement, prior to the proposed planning document being released for formal submissions. The flipside of that is a reduction in the appeal rights. The streamlined option gives a lot of flexibility for the Minister to decide on a process for the particular circumstances.
Importantly in my view, the Bill allows for greater central government guidance on plan content, including template rules for councils to use if they wish. To say that the plan drafting process is difficult and expensive is an understatement. A template approach will reduce costs, reduce the number and scope of appeals, and the gradual alignment of rules nationally will let all of those involved more readily draw on experience gained elsewhere. This development may be a relief for some councils in the Bay with pending reviews of their rules.
New powers for the Environment Court
One last topic: the Bill would give the Environment Court the power to direct councils to acquire land where the imposition of new planning provisions would render that land incapable of reasonable use and place an unfair and unreasonable burden on the landowner. It is a solution that would require the landowner’s consent (but not the Council’s), and Public Works style compensation would be paid for the land, but it may be a useful addition to the a Court’s powers.
In all, a potpourri of changes. The select committee process will help to refine the changes, but I suspect we will not see any significant changes in direction from what is relatively uncontroversial starting-point.
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