By a margin of 12 to five, councillors in Offaly have voted to remove the 2km buffer zone between wind turbines and towns and villages.
The zone’s removal had been sought by the County Council’s chief executive after submissions were received from a number of national authorities, including the Office of the Planning Regulator (OPR).
The OPR, the State’s national planning watchdog, said the 2km prohibition meant the draft county development plan was inconsistent with government planning guidelines.
Removal of the setback distance was also sought by companies involved in wind farm development, including Bord na Mona, Coillte, RWE Renewables, Galetech, Statkraft Ireland and a representative group for the industry, the Irish Wind Energy Association (IWEA).
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.
When that plan’s successor was being discussed this morning (Monday, May 24), James Condron, council planner, said the existing 2km buffer is contrary to both national policy and ministerial guidance.
Cllr Peter Ormond, Fianna Fail, proposed the buffer be removed from the new County Development Plan, arguing that another new provision, wilderness corridors in certain parts of the county, would offer protection in the areas affected.
Cllr Sean O’Brien, Independent, proposed that the 2km separation distance be retained and called on the other councillors not to bow down to the OPR.
“The guidance from the Minister is guidance and not a directive,” said Cllr O’Brien, saying the 2km buffer protects residents from the “adverse effects” of turbines which he said are getting taller and having a “much wider span”.
Cllr Liam Quinn, Fine Gael, said the council should go ahead with the chief executive’s recommendation.
Cllr Quinn said he had reservations about the buffer when it was first introduced because it was a 2km “arbitrary” distance from towns and villages and did nothing to protect one-off houses in the countryside which are much more likely to be affected by wind farms.
The national guidelines would protect all dwellings equally, said the Rhode councillor, instead of “cherrypicking” houses in towns and villages only.
Cllr Danny Owens, Fianna Fail, said that while he agreed with Cllr O’Brien “in principle”, Offaly County Council was hamstrung by the OPR and national policy.
His party colleague, Cllr Eddie Fitzpatrick, said the wilderness corridors will offer protection but he suggested that turbines nonetheless be confined to cutaway bogs.
The wilderness corridors are proposed for Blackwater, Ballaghurt and Belmont bogs in west Offaly, and from Clonmacnoise in the direction of Belmont village.
Additionally, wilderness corridors are proposed for Cavemount, Esker, Ballycon, Derrycricket, Clonsast North, and Clonsast and Derryounce bogs in east Offaly.
A feasibility study will examine locating these corridors along the route of the Midlands Cycling Destination.
Cllr Ken Smollen, Independent, supported the retention of the 2km buffer, saying that Offaly had done “more than its fair share” on the development of renewable energy.
The councillors who voted for the removal of the 2km buffer were John Carroll (Independent), John Clendennen (Fine Gael), Noel Cribbin (Fine Gael), Eamon Dooley (Fianna Fail), Eddie Fitzpatrick (Fianna Fail), Declan Harvey (Fianna Fail), Tony McCormack (Fianna Fail), Robert McDermott (Fianna Fail), Frank Moran (Fianna Fail), Peter Ormond (Fianna Fail), Danny Owens (Fianna Fail) and Liam Quinn (Fine Gael).
Those who voted to retain it were Clare Claffey (Social Democrats), John Foley (Independent), Mark Hackett (Green Party), Sean O’Brien (Independent) and Ken Smollen (Independent).
Cllr Neil Feighery (Fine Gael) and Cllr John Leahy (Independent) were absent from the meeting because of conflicts of interest in council policy affecting renewable energy and Bord na Mona.
Bord na Mona, which operates the Mountlucas wind farm in Offaly and has begun construction work on another in the east of the county, opposed the buffer zone, saying it was 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 did 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, including at Lemanaghan Bog between Ballycumber and Ferbane, also 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 called 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 had 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 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.
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