Durban environmental planners have won the first round of a bruising battle to decide whether cities and municipalities have the legal right to protect sensitive environments from private property developers.

In a landmark decision by Judge Shyam Gyanda, the Pietermaritzburg High Court ruled that municipalities have a clear legal mandate to promote “ecologically sustainable development” and to pass laws and regulations on environmental planning.

But the battle will probably end up in the Constitutional Court as a test case with implications for developers and property owners countrywide.

The Cape Town City Council has already joined the battle in support of the eThekwini municipality because it also has new planning regulations to restrict development and protect threatened environments.

The court challenge was mounted last year by Durban businessman and property developer Rob le Sueur, who argued it was unconstitutional for municipalities to regulate on environmental matters, since this legal power only belonged to the national and provincial government.

He argued that the eThekwini Municipality was overreaching its powers by trying to micromanage environmental issues on private property and infringing on property rights. Gyanda rejected these arguments. Le Sueur is planning to appeal.