Deborah Coddington
Deborah Coddington

Of Dictators and Duckponds

On the outskirts of Auckland Steve Applegath reluctantly poses for the camera in front of the result of what has been described by one of his "representatives" on the North Shore City Council, Wyn Hoadley, as the "wanton destruction of urban vegetation." It is a duck pond, surrounded by ferns and manuka. In the spring sunshine two wild ducks are happily paddling, and Steve's two adventurous cats and hyperactive dog clamour to be part of the photo.

Meanwhile across town in an intensive care ward a two-month old severely deformed baby girl is being kept alive on life support because her parents refuse to allow doctors to end her suffering. Commentators profess themselves appalled that doctors have applied to the High Court for the baby to be made a ward of the state so her life support can be turned off.

What's the connection? Both involve the right to life, yet no one really gives a damn about Steve Applegath's rights. His rights don't wear lace, pose with teddies and tug at hearts. Disabled "rights" groups won't jump to his defence. Yet the right to life is, by implication, the right to property, and, in a more insidious manner, Steve Applegath has had his property forcibly put into the hands of the state, which then attempted to turn off his life support. Apart from an appearance on the Politically Incorrect Show and a letter to the editor in his local community newspaper (interestingly, from a respected arborist), Steve, unlike "Baby L," has had no public expressions of sympathy.

In April 1996 Steve Applegath, owner and operator of an appliance store in Albany, decided to move to the country. He purchased a five acre block just off Paremoremo Road and moved a bungalow onto the site. Previously part of a larger block of land which had been extensively grazed, the property was stripped of pasture, had badly stock-damaged bush, and regularly flooded in certain places. In one corner water from the road cascaded down a paddock, and in a small gully an existing four-inch diameter drainage pipe was totally inadequate to cope with winter rains. As Steve says, "It was a puggy mess, with windblown teatree resembling dead sticks. A building site had been cleared just up the hill, so we decided to use the surplus soil to dam this creek, construct a decent sized culvert which could cope with major floods, and turn it into a nice duck pond."

Not being a reckless ratepayer, Steve phoned the Auckland Regional Council, "because that's the outfit concerned with waterways." "They were fine. They said it's not more than four metres high [the bank] so it's a low-risk farm dam. So long as it wasn't holding more than so much water it was classified as a permitted activity."

So Steve called in a bulldozer — and the trouble started. A neighbour (who shall remain nameless) with nothing better to do than mind other people's business phoned the North Shore City Council to report this "illegal" activity and the Council came down on Steve like the proverbial ton of bricks. Work was ordered to cease.

At this point Steve agrees he made a tactical mistake — he acquiesced to the Council and began the process of applying for a resource consent. Meanwhile the mounds of clay were sitting around in danger of being washed down the hill onto neighbouring property should any heavy rains occur (a highly likely event in midwinter). Just to keep everyone happy over winter, Steve drained the pond. But to satisfy the conditions of the resource consent he had to get a geotechnical report on the area immediately surrounding the proposed dam — this despite the fact that such a report had already been done for the building site area, which was about 20 metres away. The new report included a compaction report which measured the density of the shifted earth. However, Steve's engineer wrote to the Council stating that because the ground was now so wet, such a report would be unreliable, and therefore would not be forthcoming until the area had dried up.

Steve has no reason to doubt his engineer sent this letter to the Council — he sighted a copy of it. However, Council claimed they never received the letter. Steve heard nothing until several months later when a bailiff turned up at his door, with a summons for him to appear in the Takapuna District Court. He had committed 14 breaches of the Resource Management Act.

"I couldn't really believe it," he says now. "There was this pile of papers with all these charges, and I thought it was one charge repeated over and over...that maybe every time the guy tried to serve it on me and I wasn't home he was sent back with a duplicate. But they were all separate charges — it was like a joke."

A $10,000 fine soon wiped the smile off his face — $9000 to go to the Council and $1000 to the Court — and when Steve appealed against the severity of the fine the High Court dismissed his appeal. To date he has not paid. Ruefully he admits he should never have gone along with the demands of the North Shore City Council in the first place. However, it's doubtful that civil disobedience would have produced a less harsh outcome for him — Bryan Jackson of Devonport (see TFR 28 being a case in point). Today the concept of property rights has been driven home and the abuse of those rights has left him more gobsmacked than outraged. Initially concerned that publicity about his court appearances would adversely affect his business, Steve has been somewhat heartened by the support he's received, and the similar horror stories he's been told about the actions of the North Shore City Council.

In his efforts to try and show the Council that he had, in fact, improved the environment Steve invited members of the Regulatory Committee (which made the decision to prosecute) to his property to see for themselves. Not one of them came. To date, the only person from the Council to view Steve Applegath's duck pond has been the compliance officer. I phoned Councillor Wyn Hoadley to see if she had viewed the property before describing Steve's actions as "wanton destruction of urban vegetation." Mrs Hoadley was definitely not happy to answer to her electorate. "I don't want to comment on that," she told me. "If you want comment, talk to the Chief Executive." A classic case of buck-passing, since the Chief Executive only carries out policy set by the councillors. I persisted, pointing out that she had been happy to condemn Steve's actions in a North Shore newspaper — did she stand by those comments? "Deborah, I am not going to discuss it. Goodbye." Clunk!

As I drove back to the city, envious of Steve Applegath's rural haven, I heard on Radio Pacific the author of the report on the Resource Management Act, Owen McShane, trying in vain to justify his feeble recommendations and explain how the proposed changes to the Act, such as they are, would protect property rights. The alarming silences in his replies to Lindsay Perigo's relentless questioning spoke volumes about the dangers signalled by these "improvements." Contracting out consent processes to private enterprise, appointing commissioners to hear applications, compensating for private property taken for conservation — none of this, had it been in place, would have protected the rights of the likes of Steve Applegath or the other victims I've interviewed for The Free Radical: Dr Nelum Soysa, Bryan Jackson, John White. In Steve's case the Council didn't even bother to hear his application. A "lost" letter gave them the excuse to send in the Gestapo, and the jackboots marched all the way to the bank.

And if the twisted objective of those fascists who think they have the right to control other people's land is to teach people to conserve the environment, has Steve learned his lesson? "If councils think that by taking people to court, fining them, and totally disrupting their lives and businesses, they are teaching them to conserve property for the next generations, then they are totally wrong," says Steve in a rare outburst. "By doing that, they are just encouraging people to tell them to get stuffed!"

Post -Script: Introduction, Perigo On Friday

Lindsay Perigo, Radio Pacific, 25/09/98

In 1848 in the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx & Frederick Engels set themselves the task of the "abolition of private property in land," acknowledging that "this cannot be effected except by despotic inroads on the rights of property." This was to be done in the name of the good of the proletariat. Its subsequent implementation led to famine & repression. So now, its advocates use a more subtle approach. Instead of confiscating land outright, they just tell property-owners what they may & may not do on it. Instead of communists, they are now fascists. Instead of doing it in the name of the working class, they do it in the name of the environment — they are eco-fascists. Their tool in New Zealand is the Resource Management Act, drawn up under the last Labour Government, passed by the National Govt in 1991.

The National Party's constitution used to advocate a "property-owning democracy." In 1995 that was changed, to promote instead: "Sustainable development of New Zealand's natural & physical resources to protect & improve our unique natural environment, to meet the needs of future generations." National's abandonment of a specific commitment to private property rights was consistent with its passing of the RMA, which doesn't mention property rights at all. The RMA requires local bodies to draw up District Plans spelling out in detail permitted & non-permitted land use in their areas, guided by the principles of the Treaty of Waitangi, the principle of kaitiakitanga — meaning you're not the owner but the guardian of the land on behalf of others — the principle of sustainable development — meaning a bureaucrat knows better than you how to manage your property sustainably — and the principle of intrinsic value — meaning nature as is where is has value, human needs & rights have none.

The RMA has unleashed the anally-retentive, small-minded, mean-spirited mentality of tin-pot bureaucrats as never before. These near-lowest of all life forms, acting in accordance with District Plans drawn up under the RMA, have told people what colour to paint their houses, fined them for cutting down trees, fined them for planting trees, demanded the removal of a Boy Scout tree hut, fined farmers for scooping water from rivers, drawn walkway lines right through the middle of existing houses on beachfronts, ordered the removal of a backyard sleepout because it was too close to the back fence, closed down a private museum, acquiesced to the demands of iwi for payment to ward off evil spirits from developments areas, fined a person $10,000 for turning an unsightly bog into a beautiful duckpond without council approval — and so on & on & on.

The Minister for the Environment, Simon Upton, said in 1994, "If anyone thinks there is an easier way, I suspect their view of the issue is simplistic & their imagined solution inadequate."

The RMA was written in part by people who went on to become ACT supporters & "Resource Management Consultants." At the behest of ACT, in 1997, an ACT-supporting "Resource Management Consultant," Owen McShane, was commissioned by the Minister to write a review of the Act, with which the Minister had previously said there was nothing wrong. Mr McShane recommended that the resource consent process be contracted out to private sector consultants, such as himself. The Minister has partially agreed, in his new report out today. He wants private consultants to process the applications, but Govt-appointed Commissioners to approve or decline them. I wonder who will be lining up to be appointed Commissioners? Will every last one of them be an ACT supporter, or just Mr McShane?

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