Storm in view as OPR challenges Westmeath over wind restrictions

Wind turbines and Westmeath’s determination to keep them out of the county are set to become the source of much argument as the next stage of progress on the County Development Plan goes ahead.

The Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) has warned in a submission on the draft plan that there are “significant areas of policy conflict” between aspects of Westmeath’s new County Development Plan and national policies on issues such as renewable energy and sustainable rural settlements.

The OPR also challenges Westmeath County Council over its population growth predictions.

The content of the OPR’s submission on the most recent stage of public consultation on the Westmeath County Development Plan was lodged on January 20.

At last week’s meeting of Westmeath County Council, Councillor Vinny McCormack raised the OPR submission for discussion and took issue with the OPR’s take on the wind capacity of “Area Seven”.

“In the submission the Office of the Planning Regulator says that Area Seven has always been zoned as medium capacity and for some unknown reason it has now been downgraded, but that is factually incorrect: this area was reviewed in 2016 and was actually downgraded to ‘low energy capacity’ in 2o16,” said Cllr McCormack.

He said the council should notify the OPR of this error – but he also wanted to know if the council executive would bow to the OPR, or whether it would respect the decisions made by councillors after the first round of public consultation.

Cllr Tom Farrell said he fully supported Cllr McCormack, as did Cllr Andrew Duncan: “We spent many an hour in there in the chamber discussing different motions in relation to wind energy and the planning regulator has come now and requested that all of them be removed…”

He said it was his expectation that the council executive would respect the wishes of the majority of the councillors and tell the OPR that what was agreed by the councillors was the wishes of the councillors and of the electorate and that they would not be amending the plan.

Cllr Frankie Keena said that a special meeting should be held on the issue. “I do think we need to discuss this in more detail,” he stated.

Support for Cllr McCormack’s comments came also from council cathaoirleach, Cllr Ken Glynn, who credited Cllr Duncan with saying what most councillors were probably thinking: “We have been consistent from day one; nothing has changed so I would expect and hope that what we have requested to be put in the plan will be in the plan,” he said.

Cllr Denis Leonard also felt it needed a fuller discussion: “However the important point is this: we will not be moved on this for the simple reason that we are looking for a balanced cocktail of renewable energy throughout our county: we do not want to be totally reliant on wind and we do feel a lot of the areas are unsuitable,” he stated, adding that the councillors’ stances were based on their local knowledge.

Chief executive Pat Gallagher said that a report is due to be issued to the councillors in about four weeks’ time on the content of the latest round of submissions on the draft plan.