Minister of State Peter Burke has issued a draft ministerial direction to his former colleagues in Westmeath County Council calling on them to review their policies relating to wind energy.
The draft direction was issued last Thursday, April 29, and came after the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR) wrote to Minister Burke to notify him that Westmeath’s councillors had rejected its recommendations for the new county development plan (2021-27) – which would have brought its policies on wind energy in line with national guidelines.
The OPR, which assesses whether local authority forward planning is consistent with regional policy and national policy, recommended that councillors remove the policy object relating to mandatory setback distances between wind turbines and residential dwellings.
It said that inclusion of the setback distances which far exceed national guidelines “would restrict the potential for wind farm development in the county, would undermine other policy objectives supporting wind farm development”.
Under the current setback policy approved by councillors at a meeting on March 22, wind turbines between 100m and 150m in height have to be built 1.5km from the nearest dwelling, while turbines any taller have to be 2000m from the nearest home.
The OPR says that these guidelines would restrict wind energy development to less than one per cent of the county.
The OPR also says that the County Development Plan does not indicate how it will “contribute to realising overall national targets on renewable energy and climate change mitigation”. During his time as a county councillor, the now Minister Burke was a vocal opponent to large scale wind energy development in Westmeath. In 2013, when he and his fellow councillors were drawing up the previous CDP (2014-2020), he successfully proposed that windfarms be “strictly” directed to cutaway or cutover bogs.
He also supported the policy proposed by Cllr Johnnie Penrose that the setback distance for wind turbines be 10 times their height.
However, the then Minister for Planning Jan O’Sullivan used her powers to direct the council to remove those policies, stating that they were “significantly inconsistent” with national guidelines.
When contacted by the Westmeath Examiner, Minister Burke issued this statement noting the draft direction only relates to the policies on wind energy development and that “all other parts of the CDP may take affect”. He also outlined the next phases in the process.
“The draft direction addresses mandatory setback distances for wind energy turbines from dwellings as set out in the Plan, and an additional need to indicate how the Development Plan will contribute to renewable energy and climate change mitigation targets, including in particular, the potential for wind energy.
“The Planning Regulator’s recommendation is that specific changes to the Development Plan are required to ensure consistency with planning guidelines on renewable energy and climate change, with which the planning authority is statutorily required to comply.
“In particular, the OPR has recommended that mandatory setbacks of at least ten times the turbine tip height from the nearest dwelling should be removed from the Plan and re-considered, in the context of national targets on renewable energy and climate change mitigation. The potential contribution that the County can make to these targets over the period of the Plan must also be indicated, which requires additional work to be undertaken.
“All other parts of the Westmeath County Development Plan 2021-2027 may now take effect. It is only the issues addressed in the draft direction that may not, and must now be subject to a further process.
“This will include a public consultation period of two weeks, which must commence within two weeks (from the date when the minister issued the draft ministerial direction), during which time written submissions or observations on the draft direction may be made to Westmeath County Council.
“The elected members of the planning authority may make submissions as part of the consultation process and to the Office of the Planning Regulator, at any time up to the conclusion of the two-week public consultation period. Any such submissions must also be sent to the Minister.
“The Chief Executive of the Council must then prepare a report, with recommendations, to be sent to the Planning Regulator, the elected members of the Council and to the Minister, no later than four weeks after the public consultation period has ended.
“The Planning Regulator will then consider the Chief Executive’s report together with any submissions made and will make a further recommendation to the Minister, regarding a final direction.”
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