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Council wary after long, costly wind farm battle

A long and costly legal stoush involving the Rangitikei District Council, some of its citizens and an energy company has prompted the council to take a cautious approach to future wind farming options.

And whatever decision is made, someone will complain, and ratepayers will still end up footing a large legal bill, Mayor Chalky Leary says.

The council is trying to find the middle ground in the contentious debate over where to place wind farms in the district, even appealing to the Government for help.

New provisions in the draft district plan restrict wind farms from important landscapes and sites where they can be viewed or heard from houses.

Mr Leary said the council was in an awkward position when it came to allowing wind farms in the district. “They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. We tried to be as fair as we can. You can have them [wind turbines] but important landscapes must be protected.”

The danger for the RDC was that it would be forced to defend any resource consent decision made over the issue, he said.

While the consent process was paid for by the applicant, any appeal had to be defended by the council. He said whatever consent decision was made, someone was likely to appeal against the decision and that was a great waste of money for ratepayers.

Mr Leary said views were strongly held for and against wind farms in the district, as the recent appeal by Rangitikei Guardians against Central Wind, Meridian’s wind farm recently approved in north Rangitikei.

Defending the appeal by Rangitikei Guardians in the High Court had cost the council “a lot of money” and it was not the council’s job to spend ratepayers’ money on fighting in court, Mr Leary said.

Power generators who had made submissions to the district plan said the current draft was on a par with other councils around the country.

Meridian Energy spokeswoman Claire Shaw said she could not give a definite time frame for when construction at the Central Wind site between Taihape and Waiouru would begin.

The company was pleased to be given the opportunity to provide feedback on the draft district plan because New Zealand needed to develop wind turbine generation, Ms Shaw said.

“We [Meridian] are in the business of building generation and are going to grow and build wind and hydro-generation in areas where they are most needed.”

Meridian had received a fair hearing on the Central Wind project and had been “judged to tick the right boxes” to get the consents for the wind farm, Ms Shaw said.

Mighty River Power environmental adviser-planning Miles Rowe said the RDC district plan recognised potential wind farm development and was not too restrictive on where wind farms could be placed.

“If you pick a ridiculous site, it won’t go ahead.”

There were no definite plans for Mighty River in the near future, but the company was looking at sites in Rangitikei.

“The process can take many years, based on wind collection data,” Mr Rowe said.

Genesis Energy public affairs manager Richard Gordon said his company had faced opposition for a wind farm in the Franklin area, but was confident the company could work with the RDC to develop wind farms in Rangitikei.

“Specific sites of Rangitikei should be protected and where you choose development is important.”

Mr Leary said his council had seconded a proposal put to Central Government to step in and provide leadership over the issue.

The proposal by Palmerston North City Council was put at the recent Local Government New Zealand conference and asked the Government to help decide where wind turbines should be allowed to be developed to reduce costs for councils around the issue.

As yet the RDC had not had any response to the proposal, Mr Leary said.