Ashhurst fire siren appeal dilemma for council

The Fire Service Commission's appeal against a Palmerston North City Council planning decision that could silence the Ashhurst fire siren could be resolved out of court.

The service has lodged an appeal with the Environment Court against a commissioners' decision on Plan Change 11 to the District Plan relating to the Institutional Zone.

The decision rejected the Fire Service's requests for increased noise limits for fire station noise, and to have sirens excluded from those noise limits.

Commissioners Chris Mitchell, Stuart Kinnear and city councillor Annette Nixon found the Ashhurst siren could be routinely breaching the noise rules, and that the Fire Service should comply with its duty to avoid unreasonable noise.

The commissioners said cellphones and pagers should be used as the main tools for calling volunteers to the station.

But the Fire Service appeal argues the decision was wrong in not considering the risks of not being able to adequately operate a volunteer fire station. "Decision-makers must have regard to the health and safety of people and communities, including those affected by fire. That has not been provided for in this case," the appeal states.

The Fire Service's decision to appeal has been welcomed by many in the Ashhurst community, with 619 people signing resident Tracey Pinfold's petition calling for the siren's retention.

How to handle the appeal - whether to defend it in court or attempt to reach an out-of-court mediated agreement - has put city planner David Murphy in a predicament. He said the difficulty was that the commissioners had overturned the advice of council officers in making the decision to effectively silence the siren.

That was not particularly unusual, and council staff were sometimes required to accept and live with commissioner decisions that were inconsistent with their recommendations.

But the appeal changed that.

"It is difficult for council officers to defend a decision they did not recommend.

"We cannot ask them to defend something that is the opposite of their professional advice," he said.

But on the other hand, the council could not lightly agree to a Fire Service request to overturn a decision commissioners had made on the council's behalf.

There was a possibility the council would have to hire new advisers to help it defend the decision if it went to court.

If the appeal did end up in a formal hearing before the Environment Court, it could have implications for other rural communities where there were concerns about the noise generated by fire sirens, Murphy said.

Manawatu Standard