Legal advice is being sought by councillors to establish whether or not they, or the county planners, can mount a legal challenge to the decision by An Bord Pleanála (ABP) to allow Coillte to build 18 wind turbines from Ballyroan to Timahoe in the Cullenagh mountain.
Five councillors – Pádraig Fleming, Paschal McEvoy, Catherine Fitzgerald, John Moran and Noel Tuohy – agreed at a meeting attended by representatives of groups opposed to wind farm developments in Laois to seek advice as to whether a legal challenge could be mounted against the Bord Pleanála decision.
At a sometimes heated meeting in Stradbally last Wednesday, cllr Catherine Fitzgerald reacted angrily to a suggestion that, in the future, should issues arise over wind turbines, councillors could be held legally responsible.
Brian Ramsbottom from the Swan Wind Farm Group chaired the meeting.
Deirdre MacQuaile from Wolfhill and representing Wind Aware Ireland told the story of a family living within 600 metres of a wind turbine and having to move away from their house because of the problems it is causing them.
Jackie Carroll from Stradbally said that if wind energy companies decided to develop wind farms in the area in line with the wind strategy in the county development plan (CDP) “that from the town centre of Stradbally there would be 226 wind turbines in a ten-mile radius”. She also said that wind companies are still pursuing options on the Mountrath Road in Portlaoise to join up with lands in Irey, Ballyfin.
She said: “The county is about to be destroyed – our beautiful landscape, our families, our properties, our children’s future, our health. How many people have to move out of Laois for these (wind farms) to be stopped? There will be nobody living here. Those left will be living in an industrialised wind farm county.”
Henry Fingleton from Cullenagh and representing People Over Wind said: “The people living up along the Stoney Road (between Timahoe and Ballyroan) will be literally living in the middle of a wind farm. Their houses are now worthless since ABP granted planning permission for 14 wind turbines in their area. Their houses can never be sold for their true value.
“Laois Co Council did the right thing by turning down planning permission for them. The ABP inspector did the right thing by turning it down, but the board of ABP, nine people, appointees of the minister … It is disgraceful. What has happened is that a charter has been laid out through intense lobbying right through government and at local council level to pave the way for an energy infrastructure that we have no say in.
“This charter is Fine Gael to the core, being fronted by Pat Rabbitte from Labour and was started by Fianna Fáil. Big business has again got very close to government. It happened during the boom and its happening now on our energy policy. The effect of this is that we are going to suffer again and the people of Laois are going to pay more than most counties.
“We want to get the CDP reopened and to rezone Laois from wind or whatever is possible to protect this county. Otherwise, we will be destroyed by turbines.”
Colm Ward from Fisherstown said that if people’s properties are devalued because of wind farms the local authority would be facing a reduction in its property tax take.
Cllr Pádraig Fleming told the meeting that he has been informed by council officials that a review of the CDP would begin at the end of 2015 and would take 99 weeks to complete. “I asked could we do a variation of the plan (CDP) and I was told no.”
Jackie Carroll, reading from the ***Planning Act***, said that a variation of the CDP could be carried out.
“Well, the chief planner told me no. Whether that’s 100% correct or legal, I don’t know,” said cllr Fleming.
Cllr Catherine Fitzgerald said that she thought that a variation of the CDP could be carried out. She said that under the new structures of municipal district councils councillors could get legal advice, independent of council officials.
Cllr Noel Tuohy said: “I consider this (wind farm development at Cullenagh mountain) as building a scrapyard down at the back of my yard. I’m here to offer my full support to the groups because it’s the right thing to do.”
Cllr Paschal McEvoy said: “I have no doubt that you’ll have the complete support from the 19 councillors. The majority have shown their hands already. I can guarantee you my support.”
Tina Murphy from The Swan said: “Councillors are elected to protect the people. What contingency plan do you have if we all start suing you? If we do a class action against the council for destroying our land, destroying our property, destroying our families. I think we would probably bankrupt you lot.”
Cllr Fitzpatrick said: “I don’t take kindly to threats. I will not be threatened here. I work hard and I will represent you to the best of my ability, but I will not be threatened. You won’t be suing me. I have no contingency because I have done nothing wrong and I won’t be doing anything wrong either.”
Marian Condron asked: “In the event of people’s homes being devalued, what legal recourse do they have?”
Ray Conroy from Laois Wind Energy Awareness Group said that, following the decision by An Bord Pleanála to grant approval for the wind farm in Cullenagh, a judicial review into that decision had to be sought. “Why can’t our councillors mount that legal challenge? Why leave it up to a group of individuals? Even the senior planners in the council know that it should have been turned down by ABP. Why not use the power of the elected councillors and the council executive to defend their own decision?” asked Mr Conroy.
Cllr John Moran said: “The likes of ABP and the National Roads Authority (NRA) are a law upon themselves. Nobody can touch them.”
Paula Byrne from Cullenagh Wind Group said that her group has been given legal advice already and that if a judicial review was being sought it would have to be within the next eight weeks. She said: “ABP has effectively said that our council planners are inept. It’s incumbent that they take the case. They should be taking this case, not us.”
Cllr Fitzpatrick said that she wanted to clarify that as councillors “I didn’t say that we could take on cases. I said we could take our own legal advice. I don’t want it to go out that I’m taking on ABP or that the council is.”
Cllr Fleming said that the council planners were part of a planning system “and are not going to take ABP or one of their inspectors to court and I don’t believe Laois Co Council will either.”
“We’re flogging a dead horse here. I don’t believe the council will take a challenge,” said cllr McEvoy.
Henry Fingleton said: “The significance of the Cullenagh decision is the fact that we have seen a model created where a planning application can go right through with no real consultation or community engagement and no community benefits. That process will now be replicated by other companies. If we don’t make a stand now, both the council and the community, there will be hundreds of wind turbines erected all over the county.”
Colm Fingleton from the Ratheniska, Timahoe and Spink (RTS) Substation Action Group said that as well as getting councillors on board, the three Dáil deputies should also come in behind the groups with their support.
He said: “This will only change with policy change. If not, every community in Laois will end up in litigation and broke from taking their own government to court. There’s a massive responsibility on the Dáil deputies from Laois to cop themselves on and to take issue with what is going on around them.”
Cllr Fitzgerald said that a notice of motion to vary the CDP will be put to the council 14 days before the July meeting.
Henry Fingleton said: “We should make it our mission and canvass actively against Charlie Flanagan (minister for children and youth affairs) our TD and we will go out of our way to ensure he loses the next election. He has done very little for us here. He is loyal to Fine Gael and following their policy on wind farms. The gloves have to come off at some stage.”
Fine Gael cllr John Moran cautioned: “You are going to lose yourselves if you start that crack. The one way of succeeding with this is that we work together. You start saying that and you will lose a third of the councillors’ support right away. You’re at nothing if you do that. Work together. We’re all on the one team. It’s not true that Charlie did not support you.”
Colm Ward said: “We can’t lose something that we don’t have.”
Henry Fingleton then said: “OK, I’ll withdraw that about campaigning negatively against Charlie.”
Colm Fingleton said: “It all over for us (Eirgrid Ratheniska sub power station) if we can’t fund our challenge. At the end of the day, they know it. The end game is that you get beaten by money.”
Cllr Fitzgerald said: “It’s David and Goliath all over again.”
Agreeing, Henry Fingleton said: “Its David and Goliath, but Goliath’s big brother makes the decision at the end of the day, even though David beat Goliath.”
Colm Ward said: “If the (wind energy) strategy keeps going the way it is and it is not challenged and turbines do go up, then come the general election this is going to be a very, very serious player in the outcome of that election. If the government think that they got a bit of a hiding in the local elections, they’ll have to rethink again.”
The meeting concluded when it was agreed that the five councillors present would consult with their other colleagues on Laois Co Council to garner support for a variation of the wind strategy in the CDP.