Illegal earthworks raise concerns


​​​​12 November, 2019

yellow digger eathworks

Waitaki District Council is concerned about a recent increase in the number of reported illegal earthworks occurring in the District. In some cases earthworks without consent have been completed in areas which are sensitive or significant from coastal, cultural or environmental perspective.  Council tries to avoid or mitigate the effects of noise, dust, unsightly stockpiles and sedimentation through consents which allow an assessment to be made of the sensitivity of the site and conditions set around how the operation can be undertaken.  

Cumulatively the impact of multiple earthworks can leave us with a lasting legacy of damage.  Simon Upton, Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has been quoted recently as saying that the ‘little yellow digger’ is one of the top ‘human disrupters of our landscapes in New Zealand’.

The Waitaki District Plan contains several rules which apply to earthworks in rural areas. In some areas which have been identified as environmentally sensitive further restrictions apply.  

The District Plan can be accessed via the Council website and should be considered before earthworks are undertaken. If in doubt, Council can be contacted directly to make an earthworks enquiry.  Please send your enquiry to or phone 03 433 0300 and ask to speak to the Duty Planner.

When earthworks rules in the District Plan are breached an offence against the Resource Management Act 1991 is committed. Penalties range from fines of up to $600,000 and up to 2 years imprisonment. 

Things people need to know:

  • The District Plan definition of ‘earthworks’ does not include the digging of holes for posts, or the planting of trees, or the cultivation of land normally associated with farming activities.  These activities can usually take place without a resource consent.
  • In the Rural zone, permitted earthworks are limited to the maintenance of existing tracks, irrigation infrastructure, yards, fence-lines and roads.
  • The only new earthworks that are permitted in the Rural zone are earthworks that are under 50m2 in area and are not in an environmentally or ecologically sensitive area.  Earthworks which exceed 50m2 in area or 100m3 in volume require a resource consent before any work is carried out. 
  • If the earthworks are in an environmentally or ecologically sensitive area including (but not limited to) areas identified on the Planning maps as: an outstanding or significant natural feature, an outstanding natural landscape, or a significant coastal landscape, any amount of earthworks will require a resource consent.
  • All earthworks within 20 metres of any lake, stream or wetland, or within any wetland will require a resource consent.

Some ‘on-farm’ examples not requiring resource consent:

  • An existing track has become deeply rutted and affected by under-runners. It needs to be made safe to use for farm vehicles and stock. The maintenance of existing tracks is a permitted activity.
  • Using a tractor mounted ripper and pipe layer you want to pull in a new water line to get water to stock on the other side of the farm a few hundred metres away. If there is no trenching or land disturbance involved, the earthworks rules won’t apply.     
  • You need to use machinery to clear gorse and broom from a hill block and need to get down to the roots to make sure it doesn’t come back. Clearing gorse and broom is not considered to be earthworks. 

Some ‘on-farm’ examples where a resource consent is required:

  • You are developing a farm into a cropping operation, but in one of the paddocks there is a rocky outcrop just above ground level and about 60m2 in area. It will damage your gear so you want to excavate the rock below ground and then cover it in topsoil. You might be able to use the rock elsewhere on the farm. This breaches the earthworks rules so you will need to contact Council. 
  • There is a narrow track on the side of a hill which can only be used by motorbikes, but you need it to be wide enough to take the tractor down. This would mean cutting the track about twice its current width. This goes beyond maintenance of an existing track and a consent will be required for the work.
  • You are installing a new irrigator and have the water related consents in place through the Regional Council. You now need to lay the new pipe in a trench 1metre wide, 1metre deep and 150 metres in length. In this case the work is not associated with maintenance of existing irrigation infrastructure and also exceeds the permitted volume of earthworks.  A resource consent will be required.​

If unsure, it is recommended that landowners contact Waitaki District Council to check whether the intended work is covered by the earthworks rules or needs resource consent. Offences against the Resource Management are ‘strict liability’, so not being aware of the rules which apply would not be accepted as a defence where illegal earthworks are undertaken.  Additional consents for earthworks may also be required from the Regional Council.

Page reviewed: 13 Nov 2019 9:26am