Councillors on collision course with government after rejecting Burke's order to alter wind energy policies

Westmeath’s county councillors are on a collision course with central government after rejecting Minister of State Peter Burke's order to “delete” the policy relating to set back distances for wind turbines from the new County Development Plan (2021-2027).

At a special meeting held to discuss the draft ministerial directions issued by their former colleague Minister Burke, the majority of councillors were not in favour of “backing down”.

Speaking at the meeting, the cathaoirleach, Cllr Ken Glynn, urged his colleagues to “continue to listen to the the people that elected us”.

“They sent us out a very strong message and that is why we have gone down the path that we have gone down. I ask members to bear that in mind. I want to state very clearly that my stance won't be changing.”

Cllr Denis Leonard read a statement on behalf of him and his Labour colleague Cllr Johnnie Penrose. He said that the topography of Westmeath made it unsuitable for wind energy development and that the county could meet its renewable energy targets by focussing on other forms, such as solar, anaerobic digestion and biomass.

He added that the current set back distance of ten times a turbine's height from the nearest residence is the only way “to protect sustainable development in the county”.

The Office of the Planning Regulator, which recommend that Minister Burke issue the draft directives, came under fire from Cllr Penrose.

“We are people on the ground, the people facing the people, the regulator doesn't know what is happening in Westmeath and isn't even elected.”

Fine Gael's Andrew Duncan said that while it is correct to say that some farmers are in favour of having turbines on their land, the vast majority of their neighbours are opposed to them.

An auctioneer and real estate agent by profession, Cllr Duncan added that it is an “inarguable fact” that having wind turbines in an area leads to a drop in property prices.

He added that the only suitable location for turbines in Westmeath is in cutaway bogs.

His party colleague Cllr Emily Wallace said that she was in favour of renewable energy development but that it had to be the right form of energy in the right locations.

Cllr John Shaw said that the council has been consistent in its stance on wind farms and said that there are “other alternatives, such as solar power”.

“I am not anti-development and I am open to all forms of renewable energies, but there comes a time when you have to protect the residents of the county,” he said.

Cllr Vinny McCormack said that when it comes to meeting Ireland's renewable energy targets, there is an “unhealthy fixation” with wind energy. He added that other forms are more suitable for Westmeath and other midlands counties and that the councillors need to “hold firm” on their stance.

“It shouldn't be a one size fits all,” he said.

Cllr Bill Collentine, the mayor of Mullingar Kinnegad Municipal District, said that he “fully supported” his colleagues' opposition to large scale wind energy developments.

He said that for a flat county like Westmeath, the turbines being proposed are “too large, too tall and too unattractive”.

He added that “perhaps” solar energy farms would be more suitable as they would have less impact on the landscape.

Cllr Tom Farrell said that the when it comes to wind energy the emphasis should be on offshore projects and that for counties like Westmeath, other renewable energy sources are more suitable.

“We are not saying there can't be any wind farms but they should be in cutaway bogs. We have to be careful where they go,” he said.

Cllr Frankie Keena said that while it is “very important” that Ireland meets its renewable energy targets, there are various ways that can be done “apart from the overuse of wind turbines”.

Cllr John Dolan said that while he supported the move to renewable energy sources, wind energy developments should be located in counties that are “more favourable” for it, while other sources such as solar should be located in counties such as Westmeath.

Cllr Liam McDaniel said that Westmeath is not the “ideal county” when it comes to wind energy and that here the focus should be other forms, such as solar.

Cllr Aoife Davitt said that people had concerns about the visual impact of industrial turbines, as well as health concerns relating to shadow flicker and other issues.

She added that when it comes to Westmeath contributing to Ireland meeting its renewable energy targets, a “balanced approach is needed”.

“We need to make sure that it is not just wind energy,” she said.

Cllr Hazel Smyth said that she wanted to put forward a “counter narrative”.

While “respect” should be given to residents and the impact of any potential developments, it should be noted that there are some landowners who interested in having turbines on their land.

She also expressed concern that the current wind policy would prevent community-led turbine projects from going ahead in Westmeath.

Her sentiments were echoed by her party colleague, Cllr Louise Heavin, who said that she was “concerned” about her colleagues' approach to the issue and that the council needs to be “careful” that it doesn't prevent possible community projects from going ahead.

She added that the county may need some element of wind energy to meet its renewable energy targets.

Cllr Frank McDermott also said that he would not like to see any potential community energy projects ruled out.

“I said many years ago that I have no problem with renewable energy so long as it complies with the law.”

The public has until May 24 to make submissions on the draft ministerial direction.