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Fate of controversial wind-farm project to rest on secret ballot

A secret ballot will decide whether a wind farm will be built on a picturesque Highland estate which was bought by the community.

The project has already caused a divide among residents, with some arguing community-owned turbines would generate valuable income to help regenerate the area, but others saying it would harm the unspoilt scenery.

A public meeting will be held tonight in Lochinver in Sutherland to outline the project and the ballot of 2,000 residents will be held within three weeks to determine the level of support.

The Assynt Foundation took over the 44,000 acres making up the Glencanisp and Drumrunie estates in Sutherland and Wester Ross from the wealthy Vestey family in 2005 for £2.9 million.

The area includes the mountains, Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beag.

The Scottish Land Fund contributed £1.6 million to the purchase and Highlands and Islands Enterprise’s (HIE) community land unit awarded £605,000.

The community raised £15,000 itself, while the John Muir Trust gave £50,000 and £15,000 per year for five years towards management costs.

The wind farm would involve between one and six community-owned turbines. It has been estimated that three 1.65 megawatt towers would cost £4.5 million and generate £300,000 in income a year.

At an open day earlier this year, the foundation gathered comments which showed that 24 people supported moving to the next step of investigating the project, while 14 were against the development.

Cameron McNeish, the mountaineer and broadcaster, has also spoken out against any wind farm being built in the area. He said it could set a precedent and result in the finest parts of Britain being spoiled, and could harm tourism in the area.

The John Muir Trust’s representative has left the foundation board for a year by mutual agreement to allow the trust to comment openly on the project.

Helen McDade, the JMT policy officer, said she appreciated the foundation has to raise income in order to be viable, but added: “If any application contravenes our policy, we will object.”

Mark Lazzeri, the foundation’s development manager, said:

“If the majority do not wish to see any wind turbines I cannot imagine the foundation wanting to go ahead.”

By John Ross

Scotsman.com

3 July 2007