Councillors 'not budging' on wind farm setback distance

“We’re getting pressure as Westmeath County Council to change this Development Plan but we’re not budging. There’s going to be war over this.”

So says Cllr Denis Leonard who was responding this week to the pressure being put on the council to change the County Development Plan regarding its stance wind energy development and setback distance.

The Office of the Planning Regulator has told Westmeath County Council to delete a clause in the draft County Development Plan listing minimum setback distances for wind turbines in Westmeath, and it is due to be discussed at the next meeting of Westmeath County Council.

In the current plan, which expires at the end of this year, clause PWIN 6 sets out what Westmeath considers the appropriate separation distance between turbines and homes. In the new Draft County Development Plan 2021-2027, that clause is now called CPO 10.132, and county councillors want to keep it in place.

If a turbine is 50m high, it must be set back 500 metres from a home; 100m high, it must be set back 1km, while anything over 150m high must be set back 2km.

Plans proposed for two wind farms

The issue of Westmeath's rule on setback distances is set to become an even bigger issue in the coming months when two wind energy companies, Galetech and Bord na Móna Powergen, plan to apply for permission to construct two wind farms in north Westmeath - on lands at Bracklyn, Delvin, and at Ballivor Bog which takes in land near Delvin, Raharney and Ballivor.

Hundreds of homes are within close proximity of the proposed developments, which plan for 35 turbines in total, ranging in height from 180m to 200m - some of the biggest in Europe.

“The setback distance in the county development plan would protect a lot of the rural dwellings from these industrial type projects,” said Cllr Leonard.

“Because Westmeath is so flat, developers are going high to get wind speeds, to make a profit. My objection is that the current wind guidelines are developer-driven.

“If you put in anything at too high a density in rural areas you are going to be looking at these 200m turbines for 30 years to come. There’s issues around decommissioning, noise and shadow flicker, and the long-term maintenance as well as the road infrastructure for their transport in the first place.

“I think that a lot of rural Westmeath is not suitable for wind energy. While it may have been suitable for other types of renewable energies, like hydro or geothermal, or certainly for anaerobic digestion waste energy, it’s not suited to Mass-scale industrial wind farm development.

“My problem that we only went down the wind route, we never looked at other forms of energy.

“By and large we didn’t look at solar, hydro, biogas, geothermal, waste energy, biofuels or retrofitting large housing projects, which we’re only starting to do now.”

Cllr Leonard says the protections within the County Development Plan block a lot of the county to “inappropriate industrial wind development” and if they are not kept, rural areas will be closed to future housing.

“There’s about 10 major forms of sustainable energy used all around the world and we don’t even mention offshore hardly, yet we are the second most suitable area on the planet for wave energy and offshore wind, but it’s not mentioned because the companies don’t make the same profit.

“That’s why I, and the rest of the council that I know of, are pushing to keep the new CPO 10.132 in place, to maintain appropriate separation distances because then companies will have to build 2km from the nearest home and will start looking at just how many homes are in north Westmeath and realise they’ll have to scale back their developments completely.

Not against development

Another north Westmeath councillor, Frank McDermott supports what is already contained in the County Development Plan but says he not against “any development”, be it wind or any other renewable development.

“For my 53 years in public life I have never opposed any development of any shape, size or form and have no intention of opposing any private or public development.

“I am in favour of renewable energy in all of its forms, so long as it complies with the law on the day,” says Cllr McDermott.

“Essentially, the government policy is that we’re not going to go back to the candles and matches, so what are we going to do?

“We’re not in favour of fossil fuels from here on in, so we have to have other forms of energy and wind turbines is one of them, and I have no difficulty with them.”