OPINION: The boss of a Manawatu wind farm once told this newspaper he was not accountable to the public concerning doubts that the farm was complying with its resource consent.
How wrong he has turned out to be.
Despite hundreds of noise complaints about the Te Rere Hau Wind Farm near Palmerston North, the chief executive of NZ Windfarms at the time, Steve Cross, said he wouldn't publicly debate the farm's compliance with the rules.
"I'm not getting judged in the court of public opinion. I'm not going to be judged in the media about this."
His point was that he was accountable to shareholders, and compliance was a matter for NZ Windfarms and Palmerston North City Council to sort out.
The trouble for Mr Cross was that there were far too many complaints about noise for the council's comfort. And the council, watched by the media, must try to look after the interests of residents and ratepayers.
It's important to point out that NZ Windfarms is now led by Chris Sadler, and my impression is that he is less belligerent and more eager to run a farm acceptable to its host community.
Mr Sadler has taken on a difficult job, and it recently got harder – the Environment Court ruled that NZ Windfarms breached its resource consent. The wind farm is too noisy – the company's noise predictions were astray.
This means the council is in a stronger position to require improvement, and the farm will probably have to spend more money on monitoring equipment and the like.
Residents are not exactly doing cartwheels – probably because it has been apparent for at least two years that something was not quite right.
At the time of the article referred to above, May 7, 2010, there had been 392 noise complaints to the council in the past year – more than one a day.
People complained of "grinding and swishing", "gear noise", "whining mechanical noise", a "roaring train that never arrives", "droning" and "loud humming".
In expressing his reluctance to discuss the issue with the newspaper, Mr Cross added: "There are enough self-appointed noise experts around the place."
It was not the only time the company made its attitude plain. In April 2010, Mr Cross pointed out that many of the complaints came from a few people who complained often. The real issue, he said, was whether there was any science behind the compliance doubts.
It would have been more accurate for him to say the complaints came from about 20 households at Harrison Hill Rd, Ridgeview Rd, County Heights Dr, Forest Hill Rd and Pahiatua Track.
And the science proved to be less helpful than NZ Windfarms had hoped. A review for the council found "reasonable doubt" that the wind farm was complying with its consent, the matter went to court, and NZ Windfarms lost.
Note the language from Palmerston North City Council chief executive Paddy Clifford. "The case and ruling came about because members of the affected community and council staff worked together on this issue," he said.
The council confirmed that it asked the Environment Court to make a declaration because of the large number of noise complaints from the public.
Mr Cross, therefore, was wrong to take a narrow business focus to the issue.
Noise experts may bring what looks like objectivity to the debate, but they also bring interpretation.
The sounds described by nearby residents may not fit easily with what noise experts say the reality should be, but data has its limits.
According to NZ Windfarms' consent application, many residents were supposed to experience "nil noise effects" from the two-bladed turbines. This did not reflect their actual experience.
The residents have been vindicated, and NZ Windfarms has been found wanting.
Mr Sadler told the Manawatu Standard last year that NZ Windfarms was looking to be positive in its relations with the community. It might have been helpful if his company had adopted this attitude sooner.
There are lessons here for developers of other wind farms.
Companies showing contempt for their host communities take a big risk.
Those that take a cynical, minimalist attitude to tasks like community consultation should beware.
Disrespect for neighbours can put a company on a collision course with the community, and its residents sometimes win.
* Grant Miller is the Manawatu Standard's head of content and a politics junkie.
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