The department in charge of planning has defended the idea of building nearly a dozen 500-foot-high wind turbines within a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Minister Nichola Mallon had given “careful consideration” to the plans before they were approved last month, the Department of Infrastructure has told the News Letter.
It is the latest example of a large-scale windfarm being built either in or close to an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Northern Ireland has eight AONB – Antrim Coast and Glens, Binevenagh, Causeway Coast, Lagan Valley, Mourne, Ring Of Gullion, Sperrin and Strangford and Lecale.
This project (known as Corlacky Windfarm and located just under two miles to the west of the village of Swatragh in Co Londonderry) consists of 11 turbines, which will be 149.9 metres (492ft) tall from base to the tip of the blades.
It is entirely located within the Sperrin AONB.
The plan was initially recommended for refusal by planning officials for the following reasons:
– It “would adversely affect the settings of a number of archaeological sites of regional importance”;
– It would “have an unacceptable adverse impact on the visual amenity and landscape character of the area”;
– It would be “unsympathetic to the special character of the Sperrins AONB”.
The applicant – Hertfordshire-based Renewable Energy Systems (RES) Ltd – appealed against this, and the decision was reversed, with official approval given about three weeks ago.
A planning report from 2018 says the site stands less than a mile south of Knockoneill Court Tomb, a site of burial chambers which date back to the Neolithic era (10,000 to 4,500 BC), and the windfarm will be visible from that ancient monument, among other locations.
RES is also nearing completion of two other windfarms nearby, roughly forming a triangle in the north-east Londonderry area – Evishagaran (13 turbines roughly halfway between Garvagh and Dungiven) and Craiggore (10 turbines to the west of Garvagh).
In those cases, the turbines will be 140m (460ft).
Evishagaran is also within the Sperrin AONB.
And a planning officers’ report into the Craiggore site, dating back to 2015, says that it would be “impossible to disguise” a windfarm in the area and that it would be visible throughout the Binevenagh Landscape Character Area (part of Binevenagh AONB).
The Department of Infrastructure (responsible for planning) told the News Letter that “applications for wind energy development are not precluded in AONBs” but they must “not have an unacceptable impact on visual amenity or landscape character”.
It added that “each proposal is considered on its own individual merits taking into account all material planning considerations” and that the minister had given “careful consideration of the recommendations from planning officials” for the Corlacky site.
FIRM FOCUSSES ON JOBS AND ENVIRONMENT:
A 2018 planners’ report into the Corlacky windfarm estimated that it could mean up to £550,000 in business rates per year – amounting to £13.8 million over the project’s 25-year life.
And the firm involved in the plan, RES, has been keen to stress both the economic and environmental benefits which the development will yield for Northern Ireland.
It said: “The development of onshore wind is essential to achieving the rapid energy transition required to meet our target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“When developing new onshore wind projects RES carefully selects sites and carries out a number of detailed assessments to ensure that any potential impacts upon the environment, landscape and cultural heritage is understood and appropriately mitigated.
“During the development process, RES also consults widely with local communities, statutory bodies, and planning authorities to help refine the design of our proposals.
“Onshore wind projects, using efficient modern turbines, are located in areas where they can maximise the production of clean, low cost renewable electricity.
“The planning process is rigorous and only if applications satisfy the various policy tests will planning permission be granted.
“Additionally, we’re committed to using local companies who benefit from local knowledge and expertise.
“At Craiggore, Evishagaran and Corlacky Hill we’ve estimated that during construction alone, combined investment will total £30 million in the local economy, helping to secure a ‘green economic recovery’ for Northern Ireland.”