Bad news in the letterbox. One day you find a letter without a stamp left from a letter drop. You open it distractedly until something catches your eye. Alarm bells start to sound. You read it again and realise it means trouble.
The letter tells you something big is about to happen nearby; it may be a huge asphalt plant or a substation, a 70m high pylon, or a community house for young offenders.
You digest the news. It doesn’t seem possible and you feel outraged. Suddenly your peaceful existence seems threatened.
How could this be allowed to happen? And more urgently, what do you do?
It’s a predicament many Waikato residents find themselves in each year. On February 8, Hillcrest residents who had spent five months fighting a proposed asphalt plant in Riverlea Rd had a victory when Blacktop Construction withdrew its application for air discharge consent.
This week in Ngaruawahia a Resource Management Act hearing was under way to decide if Wel Networks could proceed with a wind farm at Te Uku. Neighbours aren’t happy about the potential noise and say the wind farm will be ugly. There are even suggestions Raglan’s tourism market will be affected.
Last week, it was revealed that members of a Rototuna neighbourhood were upset about Wel Network’s plans to build a substation nearby. A Hamilton City Council hearing was held this week but the substation looks set to proceed.
The uncharitable description of people who oppose such initiatives in their neighbourhood is nimbys short for “not in my backyard”. After all, many of these plans involve organisations trying to do business or get worthwhile things done. And they have to go somewhere, don’t they?
Easy to say when it’s not near your house.
Stephen Hamilton is a historian who works from home. He became spokesman for the Riverlea Environmental Society which defeated the planned asphalt plant. He has a quick sense of humour.
Making coffee in his Chesterman Rd kitchen he recalls the “buzz” of hearing about Blacktop’s decision to pull out and an encounter with Blacktop staff on Monday which was supposed to be the first day of Blacktop’s resource consent hearing.
Hamilton went to the supermarket on Cambridge Rd after dinner for a bottle of milk. He discovered that Blacktop Construction staff were sealing Cambridge Rd. There was a temptation to keep his head down as he drove by. “I wondered if I might get tarred and feathered. They have the equipment to do that sort of thing.”
The Riverlea community’s rallying against the asphalt plant serves as a model for other communities which feel threatened by new plans.
Blacktop Construction had every right to set up the factory in an industrial zone, but it chose a site near an extremely well-off and well-educated neighbourhood.
In its midst were a host of lawyers, scientists, consultants and residents prepared to spend countless hours and plenty of money to keep the factory away.
Hamilton, wife Giselle Byrnes and their two children arrived in Chesterman Rd in June.
In September after getting notification of Blacktop’s plans they arranged two meetings of the community and set up an incorporated society; it would allow residents a clearer voice publicly and give access to funding for the battle from the Environment Ministry.
Residents paid $20 to join and were asked for donations of $100 a cheap form of insurance against dropping house values, as Hamilton puts it. By the time submissions closed on October 16, 500 submissions were made and the society had thousands of dollars and a host of technical experts giving evidence. As the consent hearing loomed, an Environment Waikato planner produced a report critical of the application.
On February 8 Blacktop withdrew its plan and decided to find another site.
But the residents haven’t stopped; they are still getting donations as they continue to lobby for a zoning change they want the Riverlea industrial area to become light industrial to prevent similar applications.
Hamilton, whose home served as the campaign headquarters, says the battle crusade was stressful and “completely full-on”. He recalls their four-year-old daughter’s reaction when someone came to the door the other day.
“Is it another meeting, Dad?”
Hamilton and his family got off relatively lightly.
Fights like this can consume people’s lives. Waikato families fighting Transpower’s giant pylon plan over the last three years have not had it easy. Organisers estimate more than a dozen marriages have ended; at least partly brought on by the added stress.
Oddly, such battles can also be energising, bringing communities together against a common enemy.
But no matter how much noise you make, if you don’t have a strong case which can be applied under the Resource Management Act, you won’t get too far.
And if you are up against a government department or similarly resourced big corporate, you’ll need a lot of money, a vast amount of patience and some luck to prevail.
Look around the Waikato and there are both winners and losers.
Many Tamahere residents last year opposed a large shopping centre proposed in the community by developer Brian Nabbs. Waikato District Council scuttled the plan in December. A win.
A few kilometres away from Riverlea, the Hillcrest Action Group fought against the Te Hurihanga youth offenders unit at Te Ara Hou social services village. The unit opened in April. A loss.
On a bigger scale, Hampton Downs residents failed in their opposition to Springhill Prison and a landfill.
Riverlea Environment Society’s success compares favourably with Melville residents’ failed efforts to fight another asphalt factory in Gallagher Dr two years ago. Despite some initial strong reactions, residents ultimately lacked the ability and resources to mount such a powerful campaign.
About 140 residents and businesses opposed the application for air discharge consent by Higgins Contractors and failed to stop it.
Simon Yuzon-Leadley, a Corrin St member of the Residents Against the Asphalt Plant group, spoke at the time about the financial difficulties the group had and all but ruled out an appeal.
“It’s a burden we may not be able to cope with by ourselves. It needs someone with a bit more financial backing.”
Hamilton says at the end of the day, fighting such a battle is up to the residents. “It’s not going to happen if you just sit back and watch. You have to get up and make a noise.”
Some causes have little chance from the start. Most often, it seems, if the Government is involved in the fight.
Steven Alsemgeest, of Hillcrest, who fought Te Hurihanga, says a fundamental difference between that fight and the Riverlea stoush was the Government’s involvement.
“There’s quite a different involvement when you are battling Government. There’s the political will and as a taxpayer you are essentially fighting yourself because there is a bottomless pit of money which it is prepared to throw at it. As opposed to the commercial reality for a company which has to ask how much it’s going to cost to fight this community particularly if things get unsavoury.”
Alsemgeest says when the political will is against you, the Government can unroll a “polished machine” with highly paid consultants.
The Wel Networks Substation in Rototuna has so far avoided controversy largely because Wel Networks is what’s known as “a requiring authority” which can designate a site for use in a council’s district plan and doesn’t have to get resource consent.
Such organisations lodge pseudo consent applications to try to get neighbours on side. Generally, the best neighbours can hope for is inclusion of some extra conditions to protect them from its impacts.
Sophia Yapp, who lives on Gambia Grove, across a reserve from the substation, says she was devastated when she heard about the plan four days before she auctioned her house.
Yapp is concerned about the effects of noise and electro-magnetic fields from the substation.
She also asks how she is going to sell her house and notes that no one turned up to the auction.
“The public set the market for a house and it is a member of that public that I want to buy my house. Unfortunately the general public, for whatever reason, along with myself perceive that they don’t want to live next to a substation.”
Yapp, who made a tearful submission to the council against Wel Networks’ plan, urges the company to look for a new site away from housing.
She asks why, if Wel Networks has known the substation would be necessary for many years, it didn’t find a site more suitable.
City council planners were satisfied that Wel had investigated other alternatives.
What some community groups lack, according to Bob McQueen, one of the leaders of New Era Energy’s long-running campaign against giant pylons through the Waikato, is a few “spark plugs” to lead the campaign.
“There’s got to be a passion. A few people who will be spark plugs and put a lot of time and effort in.”
Remarkably New Era Energy, which sprang up when state-owned enterprise Transpower began consulting to build its transmission line from Whakamaru to Otahuhu, has been in existence for nearly four years.
McQueen says the Government or big corporates usually try to ride out protest groups, knowing that if an issue drags on long enough, boredom, personality conflict or different agendas will see the protest group implode.
Not this time. Despite the highs and lows McQueen says New Era Energy is in good heart, still holding meetings and still fundraising. McQueen, a lecturer at Waikato University, joined the pylon crusade, not so much because he was directly affected but because Transpower’s attitude made him angry. He lives in Te Miro and his property is about 3km from the proposed transmission line. “I just got so pissed off because Transpower came in and they just figured they were going to build this thing.”
The pylon issue has been a David v Goliath battle. While New Era Energy has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars, McQueen estimates Transpower has already spent $150 million buying up properties along the route in the hope opposition will die out.
New Era Energy has filed for a judicial review of the Electricity Commission’s decision last year to allow the transmission line.
McQueen acknowledges there have been highs and lows but says he is feeling very positive.
“It’s involved a huge amount of personal time and energy from a lot of people. The driving force for all of us is that right is on our side.
“I have faith in the system still. If we lose a judicial review then we gave it our best shot. But I’m extremely positive that we are going to get a good outcome out of this.”
He doesn’t see New Era Energy’s stance as nimbyism at all. The new transmission line is not like a prison or a landfill which have to go somewhere. He says the fact is the 400 kV line put up by Transpower simply doesn’t stack up technologically. It won’t do Auckland any good and is a waste of money.
He is not bitter about what has occurred.
“It’s a positive thing for democracy that the little guys can have a go cake stalls and sausage sizzles against a blank cheque book.”
The judicial review is expected to be heard this year.
Back at Chesterman Rd, Stephen Hamilton has the computer on he’s half-way through an email. He’s relishing the chance to get some work done now that the asphalt issue has died down. It’s been a hectic time.
But on the other side of the coin, Hamilton and Byrnes strangers to the street eight months ago now know their neighbours well. If this hadn’t occurred they could have lived there for years and never met them.
“It was a fantastic experience. Moving here in June we knew no one at all. Now we are part of the community.”
It’s a theme McQueen also emphasises.
He says he met and got to know people who he normally would never have come across socially or through work.
Through adversity, it seems, comes the odd positive.
Hamilton says the Riverlea Environmental Society is not a single issue organisation. It has other jobs on the go.
As well as pushing for the rezoning of the nearby Riverlea industrial area, it has made a submission to the city council on the proposed Peacockes subdivision and plans gully restoration work.
The support from the community has been overwhelming and the donations continue to arrive despite the announcement of Blacktop’s withdrawal. There are still bills to pay.
As the Times leaves, Hamilton accompanies the reporter out to the letterbox to check the mail.
He unearths an envelope, opens it and studies the contents with a frown.
Surely it’s not more bad news notification of another industry venture nearby?
No. It’s another donation.
By Geoff Taylor
23 February 2008
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