Financial spin-offs to Far North communities that host giant wind turbines will be more than offset should disaffected locals sell up and move away.
The warning was sounded this week as plans for a wind farm in the west of Caithness attracted fierce opposition at a public meeting.
The developers were accused of threatening to blight the lives of people living near the ground earmarked for the 21 turbines, which would stand 110 metres high to the wing-tip.
Baillie Wind Farm Limited is seeking planning consent for the development on farmland to the north of Shebster.
According to local farmer Tom Pottinger, who is spearheading the scheme, opponents are putting at risk a £100,000-a-year-plus community windfall.
“What other organisation is offering to donate that sort of money to the community?” asked Mr Pottinger at Wednesday evening’s meeting in Lieurary Hall.
His question elicited a stony response at the meeting where 35 local people expressed outright opposition to the wind farm.
Lieurary resident David Manson said: “I think that people in general people are not concerned about the potential monetary benefit when they look at the impact a wind farm would have on them.
“Perhaps the money would end up being used for farewell parties when people sell up and have to move away after they find they are not able to live beside wind turbines.”
He added: “People living beside wind farms have found their lives quite negatively affected.”
Mr Pottinger challenged this claim while highlighting the potential financial benefits the local area would stand to gain if the 57-megawatt proposal was given the green light. He said: “We are committed to setting up a community fund worth in excess of £100,000 per year. It would be a lot more than that if the community took a stake in the development.”
He said the wind-farm company has had discussions with West Caithness Community Fund, which was formed to channel income from wind-farm developers into community projects. “What they would do with the proceeds would be entirely up to them,” Mr Pottinger said.
He later sought to allay a welter of concerns raised about the Baillie scheme, including its impact on the landscape and potential noise and shadow-flicker nuisance.
Mr Manson pointed out that plans for a small wind farm on Lieurary Hill had been knocked back after a public inquiry by the Reporter who ruled that wind farms should not be sited on hilltop sites in Caithness.
“With the Caithness topography, turbines stand out like sore thumbs and are visible for many miles around,” Mr Manson said.
Carole Cameron, who lives in Westfield, claimed the turbines would have a major effect on nearby households.
“For a lot of people, the wind farm is going to have a horrible impact on their lives,” she said.
Caithness Windfarm Information Forum representative Stuart Young said there is growing concern about the cumulative effect of wind farms. He told the meeting that schemes at Lieurary and west Shebster – both close to Bailie – are in the pipeline, in addition to the existing six turbines operating at Forss.
Bill Brown, chairman of West Caithness Community Council, claimed not enough action is taken to help residents who suffer noise problems from turbines.
Colin Mackay, from Forss, said his house has been affected by shadow flicker from the nearby turbines.
“It puts you completely wrong,” he said. “I hadn’t realised for a while what was causing the problem but it is very upsetting.”
Dounreay worker Allan Mann said he worked at the technology park at Forss for three years when there was a problem with shadow flicker.
“It’s very unpleasant, he said. “It’s like a reverse strobe when it’s very bright and then you get a very dark shadow.”
Mr Pottinger explained that landscape experts from the Highland Council and Scottish Natural Heritage scrutinise all wind-farm planning applications.
He said: “They both accept that the wide-open landscape of Caithness is suitable for accommodating large-scale wind farms like Baillie.”
He had heard “anecdotes” about noise problems caused by wind farms. But he said authorities have guidelines which have to be strictly complied with in the planning and operation of turbines.
The same is true, he said, for shadow flicker. “If there are problems, the authorities will come back to us,” Mr Pottinger said. “Any complaints of problems with noise or shadow flicker will be investigated and they have the power to close us down.”
Mr Brown believed there was not enough protection for residents. He said: “All these rules and regulations are put there so they are not too restrictive on the operation of windmills.”
Earlier, Mr Pottinger was taken to task for opinion surveys commissioned by the wind-farm company.
Mr Manson claimed they critically failed to highlight the views of the nearest residents, living within one or two kilometres of the development site. He believed the questions were “slanted” towards the scheme.
Mr Manson said: “I took the decision not to reply to the questionnaire as I felt it was loaded and it would be used to put a positive spin on the views of the community.”
By not focusing on the residents who would be most affected by the development, the questionnaire was fatally flawed, Mr Manson claimed. He alleged there was evidence that very few people from the Shebster area were contacted in the follow-up telephone survey.
The point was taken up by Westfield resident Alastair MacDonald. “It’s obvious that a lot of people living in the town will not give a monkey’s but that those who live close to the development will,” he said.
Local sub-postmistress Deirdre Henderson observed: “Those living in the town are not going to have these things in their face.”
Mr Pottinger said that as the questionnaire was anonymous there had not been the chance to break it down on geographical areas. He said he had visited people within a kilometre of the site to ask for their views.
Mr Pottinger disputed that the questions had been loaded and claimed the questionnaire and telephone survey had been balanced. Asked why he had come up with the scheme, Mr Pottinger acknowledged that it was for the benefit of himself and his fellow shareholders. But he added: “There’s also a Government policy to promote renewable energy and to make us much less reliant on fossil fuels.”
He said the wind farm is expected to create three or four full-time jobs.
After a unanimous show of hands opposed to the scheme, Mr Pottinger said: “You have come here with your minds closed.”
Mr Brown, who chaired the meeting, responded: “You have come here with your mind closed as well.”
Afterwards, he said the feedback would be relayed to next week’s meeting of the community council. He said: “We have objected to the proposal. We have already represented the views of the people in the area, and this confirms that they have not changed.”
By Iain Grant
12 October 2007
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