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Offaly council under pressure to drop wind farm buffer zones

Offaly County Council has come under intense pressure to abandon its rule banning wind farms from within 2km of towns and villages.

Bord na Mona, Coillte, RWE Renewables, Galetech, Statkraft Ireland and representative group the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA) have all called for the removal of the buffer.

The call has been echoed by the State planning watchdog, the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), which says the 2km prohibition means the draft county development plan is inconsistent with government planning guidelines.

Bord na Mona, which operates the Mountlucas wind farm in Offaly and has begun construction work on another in the east of the county, says the buffer zone is not in accordance with the existing Wind Energy Development Guidelines from 2006 or the most recent updated draft guidelines.

Bord na Mona also says the draft county development plan does not define the size or population thresholds required for a settlement to be defined as a village or a town.

The energy company, which has plans for further wind farms in Offaly, also says existing and draft national guidelines on setback examine the potential impact on individual dwellings and do not differentiate between rural and urban dwellings.

“This ensures that all residential dwellings are treated in a uniform way and are of equal importance with respect to wind energy development.”

Coillte says it is concerned about the introduction of what it calls a “bespoke” separation distance between turbines and centres of population in Offaly.

The forestry body, which aims to develop wind farms on some of its land, says the basis for the 2km buffer “does not appear to be evidenced based and has the potential to stymy on-shore wind” in Offaly.

Galetech, which is active in wind energy in Offaly, says the council has offered no rationale or justification for the “arbitrary” 2km figure.

The buffer would preclude the delivery wind energy developments on “otherwise entirely suitable lands”, Galetech argue.

Another company, RWE Renewables Ireland, says imposing an additional extended buffer around town boundaries is restricting potentially viable lands unnecessarily.

“Consultation with the local community will be carried out as part of a robust planning application for any proposed wind energy projects where the design of a project will be informed by site specific factors,” says RWE.

Norwegian utility Statkraft described the 2km buffer as an “unwarranted setback which cannot be justified” and warned that Westmeath was previously ordered to drop proposals which were not in compliance with the national policies and guidance.

The OPR said Offaly County Council is “required” to remove the mandatory 2km setback distance because it would be restrictive, would undermine other policy objectives supporting wind farms, and would be “contrary to national policy and Ministerial guidance”.

The OPR also advised the Offaly local authority to consider coordinating its wind strategy with those for neighbouring counties.

The OPR was set up in 2019 to evaluate and assess the preparation and adoption of regional strategies, development plans and local area plans to ensure compliance with various legislative requirements.

The regulator says that if it considers any of the strategies or plans fail that test, it can recommend that the planning minister issues a direction requiring a council to make specified changes.

The decision to issue a direction remains with the minister.

While the Eastern Midland Regional Authority does not call on the council to remove the 2km buffer, it does advise the local authority to have regard to existing and proposed national wind energy guidelines.

The 2km buffer was included in the Offaly county development plan in 2013 because of concerns about the proximity of wind farms to residential areas.