Triumphant campaigners against a controversial wind-farm development in Caithness will be preparing for their next battle after learning the plans are likely to be the subject of a public inquiry.
North councillors dealt a blow to Baillie Wind Farm Ltd yesterday when they decided unanimously against plans to develop 21 wind turbines on farmland near Shebster after expressing concern over the cumulative effects the scheme would have.
Members of the Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross planning applications and review committee settled on their verdict following a protracted hearing at Halkirk’s Ross Institute with contributions from the local developers and spirited objectors.
A 20-strong group of protesters had earlier gathered outside the meeting to greet members and officials as they returned from a two-hour site visit.
Opponents claimed that the turbines – which would stand 110 metres to their blade-tips – would have a significant detrimental impact on the surrounding landscape and on the lives of nearby householders.
But local farmer Tom Pottinger, a director of Baillie Wind Farm Ltd, argued that the wind farm would not have an undue impact on the landscape.
He claimed that the area was the only acceptable large-scale site left in west Caithness and would provide a valuable diversification opportunity to five agricultural and forestry businesses in the area with few ecological impacts.
In a report before the committee, Highland Council planning official David Mudie recommended that councillors go along with the proposal subject to a number of legal agreements and conditions.
However, during the three-and-a-half-hour hearing a number of anomalies relating to the report were raised and councillors agreed that the visual impact of the 57.5-megawatt scheme was unacceptable.
Councillor David Bremner, Landward Caithness, expressed concern over the scale of the proposals and the possible implications for future tourism developments in the area.
He also took issue with Mr Mudie’s conclusion that the likely significant adverse impacts would be felt by the few in the interests of the many.
Mr Bremner said: “I find that a strange conclusion to draw. Are we saying that people don’t matter? I would hope not. Our motto is to serve the people, and they have spoken and have objected en masse.
“I am quite prepared to move a motion that this council does not support the application.”
Mr Bremner, who is the civic head of Caithness, said he was “astounded” that part of the Local Plan which presumed against development in the area appeared to be missing from Mr Mudie’s report.
And he argued that to approve the development against aspects of the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy (HRES) would be “irresponsible” and “unacceptable”.
Councillor Richard Durham, Tain and Easter Ross, said he was decidedly uneasy about the proposals and felt strongly that the scheme did not accord with the development strategy.
He said the only reason he could identify for the plan’s recommendation was that it was of a large enough scale to provide a significant contribution to the Scottish Government’s renewable energy targets.
However, Mr Durham pointed out: “From a Highland Council point of view, this is not a planning reason. It is against our planning policy and HRES. I feel quite strongly that we should object.”
He called for a public inquiry to be held before Scottish ministers make the final decision on the outcome of the application.
Councillor David Flear, Landward Caithness, agreed. He argued that the scheme was “a step too far” for the county.
Mr Flear said that Caithness was the “land beyond the Highlands” and stressed that in such unique countryside it would be difficult to hide the scale of the proposed wind farm. “There is less to gain than to lose,” he added.
Councillor Willie Mackay, Landward Caithness, warned that the visual impact of the development would be extreme, and argued that to save the planet it should not be ruined first.
He said: “I’m proud to have enjoyed panoramic views in Caithness. This is something special, so why pollute it? Why ruin it? There is a time and place for everything. This may be the time for turbines, but this is not the place.”
The plans had originally attracted 42 objections which were sent to the Highland Council, with a further 269 lodged with the Scottish Government.
A ballot run by Caithness West Community Council over the last two weeks of 2007 revealed that just over four in five of those who responded opposed the scheme.
Objections were also raised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in relation to the impact on internationally important flocks of geese; and by Historic Scotland, which had concerns about monuments in the area.
There has been one letter of support received by the council, and 13 letters and an 830-name petition of support sent to the Scottish Government.
As the development is over 50MW, the final decision lies with Holyrood.
Following yesterday’s decision Mr Pottinger declined to comment.
By Elizabeth-Anne Mackay
16 January 2008
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