Tom Gunthorpe believes wind turbines will help secure his future. “These days I like to say ‘there’s gold in them there hills’,” he jokes, cocking his head towards Mt Buffalo, a range of hills that seem to roll endlessly into the distance through Tom’s 2,100-acre farm.
“The income stream would have to be the number one advantage for me.”
Up there in the hills with the firm breeze is where the Black Angus-cattle and sheep farmer hopes between 12 and 15 wind turbines will go as part of the Bango Windfarm project – a proposal for upwards of 100 turbines in the area near Boorowa and Rye Park.
The Bango project is one of a handful of proposals made in the Yass area since 2006 that could see the township, located 40 minutes from Canberra, ringed by more than 300 wind turbines.
Not everyone is a believer. Mark Glover certainly isn’t. Wind farms just piss him off. Over the past few years the Bookham resident has become a leader in the anti-wind turbine movement in the Yass area.
“I think people are just ignoring it (the problem),” said the softly spoken geologist and former treasurer at Merrill Lynch Australia, leaning back into the chair and clutching his coffee with both hands.
Glover is concerned about proposals like Rye Park and Conroy’s Gap that could place wind farms in direct view of the town.
The closest could be 4.6 kilometres away, but some in town fear they could come closer.
“Initially I got really pissed off because they never consulted with the community. They came out and this thing basically went through the Department of Planning,” he said.
Epuron’s Yass Valley Wind Farm will be located west of Yass, and will comprise of up to 134 turbines. The company says it has held seven community consultations since 2013.
But Glover says there not been a public awareness campaign by the company in over a year. There is also no visible company presence in the town.
Glover cites a phone poll he commissioned in 2013 – with a letter of endorsement by polling company Galaxy – showing 78 percent of people living within 5kms of Yass have no idea where or how close the proposed turbines will be built.
“Epuron are supposed to have monthly consultation committees. I was on that, we wanted it to be monthly and then they pushed it back to two monthly and they haven’t had one now for over a year,” he said.
Epuron told the HuffPost it had not held public consultations since January, when the Yass Valley Wind farm project was briefly thrown into doubt by the department of planning.
“One of reasons there would appear to be not a lot of ongoing communication from our website or things like our community consultation committee is there is is nothing to report,” construction manager Andrew Wilson said.
“A bit more than a year ago it was the community who said they didn’t want more consultation meeting until there was something to tell them.
“Certainly over the prior 18 months to two years we had six or seven of those forums and meetings. Given it’s a well known project that has been in the newspaper, it’s been on public exhibition a number of times. We’ve had information days… so it’s a little bit strange people say there’s been no consultation.”
Glover also believes wind farms don’t work the way they are supposed to, and like many in the community who are against the proposals he takes issue with the economics of wind farms – subsidies of up to $600,000 per turbine to the companies – and visual and perceived health impacts.
“There is an irrefutable link between the operation of wind turbines and the feelings of this handful of people,” he said, adding the impacts are similar to car or sea sickness.
“What really gets my goat is it doesn’t f***ing save CO2. All this aggro, all this stuff going up, is just hugely inefficient.”
The whole thing has been a process of fits and starts since 2006: the result of shifting political winds – turbine farms being proposed, community consultations, rejections, new proposals, governments who aren’t into it, ones that are. The elevation of Malcolm Turnbull to the prime ministership and his shift away from Tony Abbott’s rhetoric on windfarms has made some optimistic, and maybe others pessimistic, in Yass.
Andrew Dobbs, the proprietor of the Thyme and Taste cafe where the The Huffington Post Australia met Glover has refused to let the anti-turbine campaigners put up petitions and posters.
“There’s one customer I haven’t seen since,” Dobbs said.
The Yass anti-wind turbine movement has however attracted some political support in the form of Federal MP Angus Taylor and NSW Assistant Health Minister Pru Goward.
Taylor said there were two practical solutions: a planning system that recognised Yass as a rural/residential area, or long-term contracts with the developers to agree not to build where there is negative community development.
“The extraordinary thing about this is we don’t have a planning system to deal with it. This is the equivalent of a factory being built in the middle of a new suburb,” Taylor told broadcaster Alan Jones in October.
“People would scream about it and so they should.”
Duncan Waugh is a hobby farmer who lives just at the edge of town. He has wanted to scream since he looked at a piece of land just a few kilometres out of town two years ago. It was only when he spoke to local artist Peter Crisp – whose galleries and artist’s space may soon come under the shadow of proposed turbines – that he became concerned.
“The scale of them you just can’t comprehend,” Waugh told HuffPost Australia.
“The way it seems to work is it’s been pushed along for so long it just slips under the radar.
“To me it’s part of the marketing of these things.”
Crisp – a glass artist who has made works for the royal family – is concerned about land values and the economic arguments against wind turbines, and says the region is becoming residential. He has written to NSW Premier Mike Baird over the issue.
“This region is becoming lifestyle,” he said.
“It’s not broad-acre farming. Probably in the end I still have an issue with turbines full stop. They do not make sense.”
It hasn’t escaped assistant NSW health minister Pru Goward’s radar.
The former planning minister recently told a Yass community meeting of about 150 people they had her support for their complaints about health, noise and land depreciation.
The development being discussed was New Zealand owned Trustpower’s Rye Park Wind Farm project – a proposal for 109 wind turbines, each 157 metres tall, with an approximate 327MW capacity.
Goward called for further land value and environmental reports to be done, and said wind farms impact on the landscape and have an immediate effect upon land value.
She vowed to put pressure on the state government.
“Increasingly, I am of the view that there is some validity on the health effects,” Goward reportedly told the crowd.
In February this year the National Health and Medical Research Council released a report which concluded that there is no consistent evidence that wind farms cause adverse health effects in humans.
Some remember Goward saying she did not want to see the issue divide the community.
She may not get that wish granted.
Like everything else around this issue, opinion is divided on community impacts. For example Tom Gunthorpe doesn’t see it as dividing the community, but recognises some are against it. Gunthorpe took HuffPost Australia up into the hills and pointed to a wide, green valley in the distance.
He said some people in that area were unhappy with a similar project, but he has one thing in common with Glover because he blames the companies for poor consultation.
When he bought the Mt Buffalo farm in 2000 he also bought into the eight-year drought that has all but crippled farming families in the area.
He was on the back foot from day one – no sheds, no silos, and the dry.
“Nothing like a drought or a virus in your network to get you organised,” he said.
“It was highly stressful. The financial pressure of running a farm during an extended drought is unfathomable. Families fall apart, all sorts of stuff.
“I didn’t know one farmer who didn’t have some form of off-farm income during that drought.”
And then in 2006 there was some hope – Gunthorpe was approached by a wind power company to host turbines on his land.
“When the wind farm people turned up in 2006 we were going ‘you beauty, this solves my problem’,” he said.
Some of his nearer neighbours – the farm is 25km from Yass – are for the Bango Project. Some who will be directly impacted will sign agreements and in turn receive a modest sum for each turbine.
While some are against it, Gunthorpe says the opposition is not acrimonious although he admits some of his relationships have cooled.
“My view is there’s only one valid reason why you don’t like them and that is because you don’t like the look of them,” said Gunthorpe.
“Everything else I just don’t think stacks up.”
It doesn’t stack up for Andrew Field either.
He’s in the earthmoving business with his dad, Jim. Jim, 79, and Mark Glover were recently blocked by security from entering a Trustpower community meeting after he put up anti-wind farm posters outside.
There are claims there were 10 protesters at the meeting and an allegation someone attempted to urinate on an employee’s car, but there were no charges laid by police who had to be called after a minor altercation.
But incidents like this are few and far between.
Field was initially for wind turbines.
When HuffPost Australia met him he was clutching a folder filled with information on project proposals, senate testimony on the health effects and notes from meetings.
During the interview he points to a map of the town and faded multi-coloured patches around it. Conroy’s Gap, Rye Park, Bango – all proposed windfarm projects that will ring the greater Yass area.
It’s a ring of colours that to Andrew, Jim and others who are against the projects see as forever changing their rural home into an industrial town.
“We got offered seven wind turbines on our farm and I thought ‘yeah, green, new, energy all good’,” Andrew said.
“Then I started looking into it and investigating… the more I investigated the more I didn’t want them.”
So he knocked them back, primarily on economic grounds – firmly believing wind farms won’t abate CO2, cost too much and are old technology. He believes the future is in solar and hydro-electricity.
“I find the impacts we’re going to have here are visual impacts,” he said.
He won’t comment on the alleged health effects of the turbines, but he does see it as having an effect on the community.
“I think the community is being torn apart, neighbour against neighbour. There are friends, friends and family friends for two or three generations, now they’re fighting, not talking,” he said.
“There’s a bit of animosity in the town now.”
But Glover said the issue isn’t tearing apart the rural community at all.
“I mean, he’s still your neighbour. You still have to get your sheep back when it goes over the fence,” he said.
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