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Two years as an RFA
By Inger Perkins, West Coast Regional Field Advisor
I began work as a Regional Field Advisor for the Walking Access Commission in January 2016. Before I had even started in the role, I was asked to investigate an access issue by someone I knew. Soon after I started, I was asked by a friend to consider another case of access rights being denied. Another person then got in touch proposing some alterations to land status. All three issues were united by the question of public access over unformed legal roads (ULR).
Two years later, ULRs remain a constant feature in the cases I manage on the West Coast. Many people, including me, have property that borders ULR and, over time, that ULR is often incorporated into the management of the land, whether paddock or garden, and a sense of ownership is natural. There are often challenging circumstances that mean even the idea of removing fences or locked gates to provide for public access could cause difficulty, anxiety and distress for the neighbouring land owner, often with concerns for security as well as stock and dog control. The first case I received appeared straightforward, and yet, two years on, despite some progress in recent months, a gate on legal road remains locked.
My role is to advise of the Commission’s (and the law's) position, and to work with those involved, guiding, encouraging and supporting neighbours and the local Council (or the Council’s property company) through the process, to reach a satisfactory solution and respect everyone’s rights, as well as the environment.
In small communities, where those involved may have known each other for decades and in a variety of capacities, this can be even more challenging and there is often a desire to compromise to keep the peace. However, ‘a road is a road is a road’ and the public rights of access over a road, whether formed or unformed, are enshrined in law.
Whether access over ULR has been requested by one person or by an organisation such as Fish & Game, our role is to help confirm where the ULR is located and to guide those seeking to use it to respect the rights of adjoining landowners and their property.
In a recent case at a spectacular coastal location, one access route within ULR went between licensed baches and even through one of them! The local community is divided over access, with tourism providers promoting access, others seeking to curtail or dissuade access due to abuse by a small minority – there are a variety of cultural, historic and wildlife values at this site – or due to genuine safety concerns due to a rockfall hazard.
From the Commission’s point of view, public access remains available – it has not been blocked as the enquirer thought. I can take the opportunity to talk to the various interested parties and share the findings with the Council and with DOC, who will work together to address the challenges.
Ensuring all sides of the discussion understand each other, and then supporting and encouraging changes that will work for everyone can not only add value for decision makers, but also ensure that the Commission plays a role as partner and collaborator, ensuring matters relating to access over ULR continue to progress and improve.