A ROSS-SHIRE community development company has this week given a robust response to a scolding by the Scottish Land Court for trying to stifle crofters’ objections to its plans to erect a wind turbine on a corner of their common grazings.
Solicitors for Coigach Wind Power (CWP) wrote to the crofters warning them their objections had triggered a formal court process in which the company expected to be successful, and it would be seeking to claim all its legal expenses from the objectors.
"Our clients would ask that you consider very carefully whether you wish to maintain your objection to our clients’ application," the letter said.
This resulted in six of the eight objectors withdrawing from the case, making clear they did so reluctantly because of concern about the financial implications.
CWP, a subsidiary of Coigach Community Development Company (CCDC), denied the letter constituted a threat. But the court said that was how the crofters had taken it – and so did the court.
In its written findings on the case, which gave the go-ahead for the turbine scheme, the court said the consequence of CWP’s attempt to "stifle the expression of objections" had been to deny the court the opportunity to hear evidence about and evaluate the merits of those objections.
"We would question whether a body which places such an emphasis on the ‘community’ aspect of its proposed development does itself any favours in being seen to act in such a heavy-handed manner against a dissenting minority within a small community," the judgment said.
"It seems to us that if indeed the objections of the grazing shareholders were as unmeritorious as [the applicants] contended, the interests of CCDC and CWP may have been better served by having them properly ventilated before the court and exposed as such, rather than by seeking to suppress them, thereby potentially leaving those objectors who withdrew their objections under protest with a lingering sense of grievance towards the development and its promoters."
This week the chairman of CCDC, local vet Ian Muir, brushed aside the court’s criticisms.
He said the company had a "duty of care" to the objectors.
"We had a moral obligation to members of our community to inform them of the possible consequences of them taking the action they were proposing," he said.
"We had to make them aware that in the normal course of events they may be liable for the not inconsiderable costs of us having to go to court."
He pointed out there had never been objections to an application of this kind before, and it was therefore a test case.
"The land court was quite keen to establish some case law on this matter, so they wanted to consider the crofters’ objections," he said.
"They were keen for their own purposes to test the law but, with respect, the legal niceties are of no interest to us. We are just trying to develop a scheme to benefit our community. It was unfortunate that we had to have the court case at all."
Mr Muir added: "This exercise has cost us an awful lot of time and effort and £18,000 in legal fees. That money should have been available to spend within our community, and, if it had been, we could have gone to agencies like Highlands and Islands Enterprise to ask for match funding. So that’s £36,000 worth of community investment that has been squandered because of this case. There was no reason for it to go ahead."
He added they had faced an "orchestrated" campaign of opposition every step of the way.
Mr Muir said the scheme would use less than one hectare of the 5700 hectares of common grazing and would not affect crofters’ ability to graze livestock in any way.
He added: "The project is now moving ahead, on schedule, and we look forward to it being delivered and to the turbine starting to generate income for the community by March next year."
The court made no award of expenses to either side and ruled that the sole remaining objector, Reiner Luyken of Polbain House, Achiltibuie, had failed to make out any grounds of objection under the Crofters Act 1993.
Mr Luyken said this week that the court’s rulings had set precedents in Scots Law.
He added: "A private developer would never have been granted planning permission for an industrial wind turbine of the proposed size in this particular location. Within the Crofters Act, however, a community group is bound by the same rules that apply to a landlord, or to a private developer. This should serve as a salutary lesson to all community groups who may be tempted to play fast and loose with the rules."