Isn't the job of planning authorities to facilitate wind farm development?

Worrying turn of events for local residents.

Isn't the job of planning authorities to facilitate wind farm development?

Residents who brought their legitimate concerns about a wind farm to a local authority should have been treated with respect, says Special Correspondent Michael Clifford.

Is it the job of planning authorities to facilitate wind farm development? Or should the focus be on scrutinising that they comply with the law?

The questions may well be asked in light of a decision from An Bord Pleanála last week. The board ruled that a wind farm in Co Waterford was operating with rotor blades that were longer than specified in the planning permission.

As a result, the wind farm constitutes a development that has not received planning permission. That of itself would be a worrying development, suggestive of a lax attitude towards the operation of wind farms.

Much worse though is evidence that the local authority actually permitted the developer to bypass the law and subsequently gave affected residents the runaround when they raised the matter.

Barnafaddock wind farm is located in mountains above Ballyduff Upper, a picturesque village that nestles at the foot of the Knockmealdowns in west Waterford. It consists of 11 turbines, three on Coillte lands, and the remainder sited on private holdings.

Planning permission for the farm was granted to Irish developer Element Power in 2013. It included a stipulation that the diameter of the rotor blades on the turbines on the private lands not exceed 90 metres.

In 2014, the farm was sold to US industrial giant GE Electric. Operation of the turbines began in 2015. The following year it was “flipped” again, this time to international investment firm Blackrock Assets.

The farm began operation in 2015. Later that year local residents Ronald Krikke and Sean and Catherine Harris noticed that the noise pollution from the farm was worse than they imagined. After a period, they undertook their own noise survey.

Subsequent to that, Mr Krikke physically measured the blade on one of the turbines. It appeared longer than 90m. He wrote to Waterford City & County Council (WCCC) and received a reply on September 20, 2016.

“There have been no agreements between the wind farm and the council that constitute an aberration from An Bord Pleanála planning conditions,” the mail from the council’s planning office confirmed.

He informed them of this new discovery. When he received no response initially, he persisted with it.

“The shocking main issue here is that the 13 metre increase (15%) in blade diameter is a big deviation from the planning conditions that has not been signalled by your office, and whereupon no action has been taken,” he wrote.

Whatever the reasoning for not doing so, it should be remedied and acted upon immediately by your office. Hence I request that your office will do an immediate check on the compliance regarding the material conditions for blade diameter

Eventually the council agreed to undertake a survey. That found that in fact the blades were 103m long and not 90m, an increase of 15% which would result in a corresponding increase in the energy generated.

WCCC referred the matter to An Bord Pleanála to determine whether the longer blades constituted “a development”. If so, it would constitute an unauthorised development for which there was no permission.

During the course of the planning board’s inquiry it emerged that there was more to this story. In its submission to the board, WCCC stated that: “The deviations as described have been brought to the attention of the planning authority by the residents in the area over the last two years. In particular the issue of the increased blade length has been brought to its attention in the last year.”

This was contradicted by Fehily Tomony, the engineers acting for the developer.

“The above statement may give the incorrect impression that WCCC were not aware of the change in blade length before 2016. We refer to the compliance response of 2013 in which WCCC confirmed firstly that they noted the developer’s intent to install a 103m-diameter turbine and secondly that WCCC agreed that same was in compliance with the 2011 permission.”

In other words, the council gave the go-ahead for the longer blade. This was in contravention to the permission granted by ABP. Not only that, but the council was telling An Bord Pleanála that the first it knew of the longer blade was when the residents discovered it.

Another outcome of this farrago was that the council unquestionably gave the runaround to the residents, failing to inform them that they were well aware of the deviations from planning permission.

On Friday evening last the board issued its ruling that the longer blades did constitute a development and were not exempt from planning permission.

Waterford CCC has informed the Irish Examiner that its response will be to “immediately commence enforcement action” against the developer.

The reaction from the developer will be interesting. (A spokeswoman said Blackrock was not in a position to give any comment at this time.) A local authority that gave the go-ahead to use longer blades is now signalling it will close down the operation because the longer blades were used.

The role of WCCC, and by extension, local authorities in general, must also come under scrutiny following the planning board’s ruling. Various resident groups around the country have repeatedly criticised positions taken by local authorities in relation to wind farms. Usually, the criticism is that the local authority is not acting as an independent arbiter but actually facilitating the wind farm developer. Some of this criticism is unfair but there is certainly evidence in a number of cases — including Barnafaddock — that would act as a ballast to residents’ suspicions.

It could be argued that local authorities have a direct, vested interest in the development of wind farms. The developments contribute generous rates to the local authorities, providing a stream of direct income.

Also, wind energy is a key part of a national policy designed to concentrate on renewables in a time of worrying climate change. Against that background, local government may not at times be in a position to see the wood from the trees when it comes to carrying out its statutory functions.

None of that, however, can excuse the runaround that was given to Mr Krikke and the Harrises. As residents who brought legitimate concerns to the local authority they were entitled to at least expect that they would be treated with respect and not deflected and delayed as they were.

Lessons really need to be learned from this experience if confidence is to be placed in the handling of wind energy projects throughout rural Ireland.

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