Sentencing for wetland disturbance
Sentencing for wetland disturbance
Wednesday 30 March, 2022
Once viewed as an impediment to efficient land management, in recent years, local authorities have realised the ecological importance of wetlands and taken steps to protect them. Those who disturb or damage wetlands may face charges under the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA). As a recent criminal case demonstrates, this will apply even to small wetlands.
The defendants in this case were each found guilty of 35 charges for breaching the RMA, abatement orders, and an enforcement order. Twenty-five of these charges were for “allowing cattle access to the wetlands, disturbing wetlands, undertaking earthworks in water bodies, the deposition of substances into water, taking water, and discharges of contaminants to water”. The work was carried out by Mr Page on land owned by Ms Crosbie. Nine charges were for contravening abatement notices issued by the Council requiring them to prevent stock from accessing wetlands or undertaking earthworks near the water bodies. The final charge is for breaching an enforcement order issued by the Environment Court. The enforcement order was breached by allowing livestock to graze on a field used for the nearby subdivision’s wastewater disposal.
The Court recognised that, in this case, only a small area of wetlands was actually damaged, particularly in comparison to similar cases, but highlighted the importance of wetlands generally. The Court assessed culpability as high because the Council had “bent over backwards” to inform the defendants that what they were doing was not permitted under the Regional Plan. The defendants continued with their actions, despite information from the Council, abatement notices, and an enforcement notice. The Court considered that Mr Page’s culpability was more serious, since he undertook most of the work and management of the farm.
Ms Crosbie’s sentence
After allowing for a 5% reduction for past good character, the Court imposed fines amounting to nearly $119,000 on Ms Crosbie, consisting of:
- $1,900 for each RMA charge, totalling $47,500.
- $2,638 for each abatement notice breach, totalling $23,742.
- $47,500 for breach of the enforcement order.
The Court considered that the breach of the enforcement order was the most serious charge, as deliberate defiance of a court order “is something which must be treated at a very high level of seriousness.”
Mr Page’s sentence
The Court noted that Mr Page’s attitude towards discussions with the Council had been “aggressively defiant” and would have imposed a larger fine on him but for the defendant’s inability to pay and outstanding fine. The Court held that the most appropriate sentence was one of imprisonment, due to the defendant’s lack of remorse, previous similar convictions, and deliberate defiance of the Environment Court’s order. The Court sentenced Mr Page as follows:
- Conviction and discharge for RMA breaches
- A three-month imprisonment sentence was ordered for breaches of the abatement notices.
- A three-month imprisonment sentence was ordered for breaching the enforcement order, to be served concurrently.
The Court also granted orders under s 339(5) of the RMA which prohibit the defendants from breaching the Regional Plan and National Environmental Standards for Freshwater for the wetlands on their property and requiring Ms Crosbie to implement a wetland restoration plan on her property.
The Court’s willingness to impose a sentence of imprisonment demonstrates how seriously it will take deliberate breaches of abatement notices and enforcement orders, and the importance now placed on protecting wetlands. If you have any questions about this case, our experts can help.