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Bid to remove wind farm buffer zone from Offaly towns and villages

Offaly County Council planners have backed calls from the wind industry to remove the 2km buffer between turbines and towns and villages.

The buffer was inserted in the county development plan in 2013 amid significant opposition to wind farm development all over Offaly.

While councillors adopted the buffer zone, they were warned the move went against national policy at the time.

A new development plan which will govern planning up to 2027 is now being drafted and several energy companies, along with the representative group the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA), lobbied strongly for the removal of the buffer.

In her response to the submissions, council chief executive Anna Marie Delaney said she proposes to remove the requirement for a setback distance of 2km between turbines and settlement boundaries of towns and villages.

Ms Delaney says such mandatory separation distances would restrict wind farm development, would undermine policy objectives supporting such development and would be contrary to national policy and ministerial guidance.

Bord na Mona, Coillte, RWE Renewables, Galetech, Statkraft Ireland and the IWEA had all called for the removal of the buffer.
The call was echoed by the State planning watchdog, the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR), which said 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, is building another in the east of the county and has plans for several more, said 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 said 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 said 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 said it was 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, said 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, said the council 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 argued.
Another company, RWE Renewables Ireland, said imposing an additional extended buffer around town boundaries was 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,” said 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 said that if it considered 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.

The Eastern Midland Regional Authority advised the council to have regard to national guidelines.