The Far North District Council has been forced to make a U-turn on a decision made just a month earlier about development restrictions in a historic corner of Paihia.
Since an Environment Court ruling in 2006, the Paihia Mission Heritage Area - which includes St Paul's Church, a cemetery, the ruins of William Williams' 1832 home and 12 private properties along Marsden Rd - has been protected from development by tough, but temporary, rules designed to protect the area's character and history as one of New Zealand's first mission stations.
The council was supposed to eventually set permanent rules in its district plan.
The process was to have started at the council's May meeting but councillors voted to hold off with the district plan change, saying the estimated $25,000 cost was an imprudent use of public money in a time of belt-tightening and budget-cutting.
Councillors also said that the positions of the two parties in the dispute over development rules - the property owners and the Paihia Heritage Precinct Support Society - were so far apart that the issue was likely to end up back in court whatever they decided.
But the council's hand has been forced by a threat of legal action from property owners in the Heritage Area, who can do little with their land under current rules.
A letter from the group's lawyer informed the council that legal action would start the day after its June meeting, unless the district plan change process was started.
Acting environmental management boss Murray McDonald said at last week's meeting the council would be on "shaky ground" if legal action went ahead.
If the issue ended up in the High Court, the cost to ratepayers was likely to be substantial, he said.
While the council had so far focused on the two opposing groups, many other people in Paihia were likely to want to have a say because the final decision could shape the future appearance of a stretch of Paihia's waterfront.
Deputy Mayor Ann Court said she did not realise at the May meeting that councillors had been committed to acting on the plan change by a previous council.
There was a lesson to be taken from the U-turn, she said.
"As a council we should should not commit ratepayers to helping small groups of people fight their battles with ratepayer money."