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Locals gone with the wind farm

Paul Lewis just wants a good night’s sleep.

More than three years since the largest wind farm in the southern hemisphere sprang up on his back fence, the sheep and cattle farmer considers himself lucky if he has a night when he isn’t woken by the sound of turning blades.

Now with a slew of new wind farms planned around his town of Hawkesdale, 300km west of Melbourne, and impending changes to Victorian state planning policy, Mr Lewis is seriously pondering his future.

“Everyone thinks these things are great, but they’re not the ones living beside them and getting woken up at night,” he said.

“It’s got to the point that … if any more of them go up then we’ll just have to move out.”

Mr Lewis is one of thousands in regional Victoria on edge as controversial planning laws have passed the first hurdle of the Victorian parliament. The Andrews Labor government has been accused of attempting to sidestep local communities in its bid to meet an ambitious renewable energy target by developing a fast-track process for some wind-farm developers to alter or expand already-approved sites.

Across town from Mr Lewis, wind-farm owner Union Fenosa has applied to increase the height of turbines at its Hawkesdale and Ryan Corner wind farms from 126m to 180m each – the same height as Melbourne’s Sofitel Hotel or Sydney’s Grosvenor Place tower – while reducing the number of turbines by about 16 per cent.

“These changes just take away the rights of the individual altogether,” Moyne shire mayor Jim Doukas told The Australian. “And there’s been very little discussion with local communities about how these wind farms will affect them, and now they’re making it easier for these projects to get bigger.”

The changes come within the Andrews government’s Planning and Building Legislation Amendment, an omnibus bill that also proposes to boost affordable housing and crack down on dodgy builders.

Under the plan, wind-farm developers wanting to make changes to projects that have been “called in” or approved by the minister will be able to sidestep a planning- panel process that often takes several months, and instead be judged in an expedited system by a standing committee. The new process proposes to cut time and legal costs because the Standing Assessment Committee has to consider objections without hearing them in a panel setting.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne said the change allowed wind farms to update for new technology that had cropped up between application and approval.

But critics argue it strips the community of the right to object to, oppose or request modifications to the projects because it bypasses the standard panel assessment process.

Victoria’s Coalition said the government was putting communities in the back seat as it chased an ambitious renewable energy target to source almost half the state’s energy supply from renewable sources by 2025. The bill passed the lower house last week.

The Coalition had tried to insert amendments to tighten the application process for wind farms, opposition spokesman for planning David Davis said. “We think there is evidence of serious injustice and unfairness that can result from the proposals here,” he said.

Local Liberal member Roma Britnell has been inundated with calls of concern.

“People are concerned the landscape they value will be saturated by hundreds of towers three times the height of the West Gate Bridge,” she said. “They are worried that their voices aren’t going to be heard and that the minister will just tick off projects without any regard for the landscape in order to reach the targets set.”