As discussed previously on this blog (here
) Donegal County Council will on Monday 30 June 2014 meet to consider and vote upon the proposed variations to the wind energy sections of the County Development Plan 2012-2018 (as amended). As part of this process an unprecedented 3,326 submissions were received in response to the public consultation on the variations. A summary of the submissions is available here
As required by the Planning and Development Acts the Chief Executive of Donegal County Council has drafted a report
on the proposed variations and this has been issued to the elected members for consideration. The Chief Executive’s Report however discounts the vast majority of submissions – greater than 98% of the 3,326 – who support the proposals to grant greater protection to residential amenity, in assessing wind farm applications, through an express objective, and the establishment of a ten times turbine height setback from homes and centres of human habitation. His report also fails to accept that the Fresh Water Pearl Mussel (FWPM) sub-basin catchment areas protected in Irish and EU law should be designated as not favoured for wind farm development. Again this proposal has the support of more than 98% of submissions received.
This post will not comment in detail on the Glenveagh variation. Suffice to say – a total of 2,188 submissions were against weakening the protections of Glenveagh from wind farm development, with only 4 submissions in support of Fianna Fail Cllr Blaney’s proposal to weaken Glenveagh’s protection from wind farm development. The Chief Executive has recommended that Glenveagh protections as currently defined remain in place. It is the FWPM dezoning and the setback variations that I will address in detail here.
The Fresh Water Pearl Mussel (FWPM)
The Chief Executive’ s Report (page 25) in recommending not to catergorise the FWPM sub-basins as not favoured claims that:
the inclusion of the Freshwater Pearl Mussel Basin areas as ‘Not Favoured’ for wind energy projects is not evidence based and would be biased against a sector that may not be presenting the most significant risk to the FPM and may represent a blanket ban where appropriate mitigation measures may be feasible
This takes an extremely strained – down right wrong – interpretation of planning and environmental law. This is extraordinary given the fact that the zoning of areas as open to consideration (favoured) for wind energy in the current Development Plan was undertaken despite the Department of Environment warning of a lack of evidence base to zone areas as favoured in the first place (see extract below from letter 30 March 2012 to Donegal Council):
Furthermore the FWPM populations and habitats are protected in Irish and EU law and the Sweetman judgment (paragraph 44
) confirms that a plan can only be approved when the best scientific knowledge in the field – are certain that the plan or project will not have lasting adverse effects on the integrity of that site.
Donegal County Council have wrongly decided to shift this burden of proof away from themselves and to reverse it.
Despite the burden of proof falling on those proposing to zone these areas as favoured evidence does exist which confirms the risks wind farm and ancillary development pose to FWPM catchments. For example the Straboy wind farm appeal
near Glenties highlighted the issue in a clear manner. The EPA STRIVE Report Management Strategies for the Protection of High Status Water Bodies (2007-2013) highlights the impact of wind farm development
on the FWPM on the Oily river. Such a not favoured zoning for FWPM catchments was also introduced in Kerry in 2013 and has worked well. The evidence is there only Donegal County Council do not wish to see it.
The Council also claim that designating the FWPM areas as not favoured is equivalent to a ban. This is not the case. What is being proposed is not a ban. The intention of the zoning as not favoured is intended to be interpreted as requiring a higher level of scrutiny for applications which may be made in these areas. It does not exclude planning applications in those areas but it sets the onus of proof on the developer at a higher level to prove there will be no negative impact thus directing development away from these sensitive areas in the first instance.
Setback distance 10 times turbine height
The primary reason given as to why the introduction of a specific setback distance is not accepted by the Council is that it is not consistent with the Ministerial Wind Energy Guidelines 2006 and it is recommended that the Councils policy in relation to residential amenity and set back of turbines, be retained as consistent with the current Ministerial Guidelines.
An important point must be made here, there is currently no setback
identified or provided for in Donegal. The Council themselves in their submission on the review of the National (Ministerial) Noise Guidelines (Jan 2014) at point 3(b) on page two of their submission call for consideration of a ten times the tip height setback
. The Manager’s report and his recommendation are in conflict with this submission which was the outcome of a planning workshop held by Councillors on the issue.
A further more sinister point must be raised, the Department of the Environment has threatened the Council that establishing a ten times turbine height setback would lead them to issue a Ministerial Direction to reverse it. No tacit reason for this threat has been identified. The Irish Wind Energy Agency (IWEA) in their submission confirm that at least 9% of the County is still available for wind farm applications should a 1km exclusion zone from homes be put in place. The average height of turbines in Donegal at present is less than 100m and Enercon E70’s are the most popular in current applications – overall height 99.5m. Therefore a 10 times setback would equate to less than a 1km exclusion around homes.
Even with a 10 times setback and 100m turbines there remains almost 46,000 hectares (45,900) open for developers. It is entirely unreasonable for the Council or the Minister to claim that the setback is a measure equivalent to a ban on wind farms in the County. On average 10 hectares is required for a 100m tall turbine from this it is clear that there is ample area available outside of areas close to homes where developers should be directed to in the first instance. It must also be noted that the current CDP runs until 2018 and if the setback is too restrictive it can then be reviewed.
Role of elected Councillors in planning
Finally, the power to vary the CDP is provided under s.13 of the Planning and Development Acts to empower Cllrs to ensure planning policy is proper and sustainable for the area (in this case the County of Donegal). Blunt application of national policy would pepper the county with wind farms in inappropriate locations. Varying the plan in a measured and prudent way by providing a setback from homes and protecting ecologically sensitive species and habitats represents best practice in planning.