“This has destroyed a local community.”
That’s the argument put forward by Narelle Goodall, who fought back tears, as she begged a planning panel not to give approval to a major wind farm, east of Kojonup.
It was a sentiment echoed by many nearby farmers and landowners to the proposed 150 megawatt Flat Rocks wind farm in the shires of Kojonup and Broomehill-Tambellup.
But, the project by Moonies Hill Energy, is a step closer after a recent public hearing of the Great Southern joint development assessment panel.
The panel unanimously gave conditional planning approval to the proposal.
The project would see 74 turbines built on nearly 7,000 hectares of private farmland.
According to the company, the wind farm would power 90,000 homes and inject $130 million into the local economy.
A number of farmers and other residents of both Tambellup and Kojonup have led campaigns against the development, centred around several arguments.
Among those are fears that the turbines will restrict the operations of neighbouring farmers, including preventing aerial spraying of some properties, and a belief it will damage the aesthetics of the town.
According to prominent anti-wind farm campaigner Roger Bilney, the biggest concern of locals is the worry the wind farm will harm the health of residents.
“I know other arguments have been put forward but my concern for my family and their ability to live has been paramount for me,” he said.
“My genuine concern has been the potential for my family to be affected by the noise emissions.”
Mr Bilney says his three sons, who work in the family business, are all likely to be within two kilometres of a turbine and that’s cause for legitimate worry.
Additional concerns were raised by nearby farmer Craig Dennis, who says he was approached by Moonies Hill to host turbines but refused.
“Large tracts of land won’t be able to be farmed properly if this goes ahead,” he said.
“The community has nothing to gain and everything to lose.”
Ms Goodall and others also point out that it has harmed the sense of community in the affected areas, dividing friends and neighbours and putting an incredible strain on relationships.
The concerns raised at the meeting and on countless other occasions since the idea was first mooted are strongly rejected by Moonies Hill.
“There’s a lot of research around that says there’s nothing to be concerned about in terms of the health impact of wind turbines,” managing director Sarah Rankin said.
“We’re buoyed by the experience of wind farms in WA given they’ve been operating successfully for well over 20 years with no reported negative health impacts.
“We’re confident that we’ve met all the guidelines that are in place, which are some of the strictest in the world, so this is going to be a world class development.”
‘A needed boost’
Ms Rankin says there are potentially enormous benefits for the community in the project.
Moonies Hill believes the project will create 200 jobs during construction, in addition to up to 15 permanent jobs, and diversify the economic base of a region largely dependent on agriculture.
“It’s going to be a fantastic result for the community,” Ms Rankin said.
“There’s a lot of economic benefits to come out of it; tourism opportunities, new industries and employment, so we’re very excited about it.”
The panel identified economic benefits and diversification as key reasons for allowing the project to move forward to the next planning stage.
Its acting presiding member Ian Hocking says the decision centred around finding the wind farm’s construction was consistent with the ‘rural’ use the land is designated for under the shire’s planning schemes.
He says the opportunities the wind farm would create are important at a time when climate change and economics are putting a major strain on farming.
“The debate [is] whether it will bring income and work into the local community and whilst it hasn’t been spelled out in precise terms, we accept there’ll be some of that coming,” he said.
“If it’s not to the detriment of broadacre farming, then it’s a source of supplementary means of income for the farming community and means more jobs in the area.”
The WA Farmers Federation says the idea of broadacre farmers using a small portion of their land for wind turbines to generate extra income is something producers in other regions should also be considering.
President Dale Park says it’s “inherently a good idea”.
“I think it’s a great chance for farmers to offset the variability that we have in climate these days,” he said.
“If we can have a system where we can profit from the wind we get, for instance, we should be grabbing it with both hands.
“To the best of my knowledge, there are no health concerns and there are plenty of communities in WA that have got wind farms and haven’t got a problem.”
Not over yet
Many of the project’s critics viewed the public meeting as the last real chance to stop it going ahead, but Mr Hocking says the project will have to meet strict conditions to get off the ground.
These include conditions relating to noise levels and the location of the turbines, among many other issues.
“There have to be performance criteria satisfied and it all relates back to Australian regulatory standards,” he said.
“The proponents are going to have to come back with progressively detailed information at each stage.
“That will come back to the local authority and, if it’s not satisfied the performance requirements have been satisfied, [it] will have to determine what to do and the most likely thing is it comes back to the [panel] for consideration.”
Ms Rankin says there are still many internal obstacles to overcome as well.
“We need to continue our work with Western Power in terms of grid connection, we need to finalise the technology that we’ll be using for the project, and we need to raise some capital to build the project,” she said.
“The construction phase of the project will be an 18 month type process so it’s not going to be popping up tomorrow but we’re hoping to be up and running by 2016.”
If the end outcome is the construction of a wind farm, then the project’s opponents have a very similar hope to Moonies Hill.
“From here, this project, if it goes ahead, does need a success because with that will come the rewards that the community has been spoken to about and the fears the neighbours have will be proven unwarranted,” Mr Bilney said.
“That would constitute a success and it’d be a great outcome if that’s what comes from here.”
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