There was a case of deja vu for Cllr Emily Wallace when she heard the recent news that a renewable energy company has plans to build a wind farm in her area.
A little over a decade ago she was one of the central figures in the campaign against Galetech’s unsuccessful attempt to develop a wind farm in Gaybrook.
Now, in early 2022, she and other members of the recently formed Gaybrook Milltownpass Wind Turbine Action Group are stirring themselves for another battle, this time against Statkraft Ireland, which revealed last month that it wants to develop seven 195m turbines on land close to Milltownpass Bog.
A county councillor since 2016, she says that the An Bord Pleanála decision to refuse planning permission to Galetech as the development “would be unsuitable for the area” is as valid today as it was in 2011.
Galetech’s initial application to Westmeath County Council received more than 300 submissions and she believes that the close-knit community will be just as exercised this time around.
“The landscape isn’t suitable. The proximity to homes. The number of one-off houses in the area. The height of the turbines. This area just isn’t suitable,” she said.
Westmeath is currently only one of three counties in the country with no wind farms and the stringent guidelines on wind farm development in its county development plan drawn up by Cllr Wallace and her colleagues far exceed those at a national level.
In fact, in May of last year, Minister of State Peter Burke issued a Ministerial Direction to his former council colleagues advising them to “delete” the policy relating to setback distance (10 times the tip height of the turbine). However at a meeting to discuss the direction, the councillors declined to do so.
Gaybrook Milltownpass Wind Turbine Action Group is one of three community organisations in the county campaigning against wind farm developments proposed for their localities. They all cite concerns about the impact that industrialising the largely pastoral landscape will have on people’s health and wellbeing, as well as local flora and fauna. Some are also worried about the negative effect that these developments would have on house and land values.
In the Coole area, the North Westmeath Turbine Action Group (NWTAG) have been engaged in a five-year campaign to prevent Statkraft from building a 13-turbine wind farm on cutaway bog.
After An Bord Pleanála overturned the decision by the council to refuse planning permission for the proposed development, the NWTAG and environmentalist Peter Sweetman initiated separate challenges in the Commercial High Court. Almost two years later, the findings have not yet been issued.
In the interim, Statkraft has applied for planning permission to ABP for an expanded 15-turbine wind farm on the same site, with the two extra turbines located on agricultural land, on the grounds that the project is a Strategic Infrastructure Development.
The chairperson of the NWTAG, Jen Gallagher, says that even with the inevitable delays due to the events of the last two years, the group and their legal team are surprised that it has taken this long for Commercial High Court to publish its ruling.
Like all of her fellow local campaigners, she stressed that the NWTAG is pro- renewable energy development, but that they feel that of all the options available for Westmeath, wind is the least suitable given the landscape.
“Our main aim is to get the bog regenerated as a carbon sink – that would be far better for the area,” she said.
Over near the Meath border, the Delvin Raharney Ballivor Wind Action Group are trying to prevent two wind farms from being built in their locality.
Bracklyn Wind Farm Ltd, a subsidiary of Galetech, have already submitted a SID application to An Bord Pleanála for nine 185m high turbines in the townlands of Ballagh, Billistown, Ballynacor, and Bracklyn in the north of the county and the townland of Coolronan in Meath.
Bord na Móna are also set to make an SID application for 26 200m high wind turbines in the Ballivor Bog Group, which straddles the Westmeath and Meath border.
Due to the pandemic, the Delvin Raharney Ballivor Wind Action Group (DRBWAG) will host its first in-person public meeting this Friday, March 4, in Ballivor Hall (7.30pm).
DRB spokesperson Daryl Kennedy says that industrial turbines of this scale are not suitable for midlands counties like Westmeath.
“The position our group would take is that this level of energy infrastructure is just simply not appropriate for this low lying area.
“Realistically the government need to be much more imaginative and expansive in their thinking about what sort of renewable energies are suitable for the country. Some areas are suitable for wind, some for geothermal, some are suitable for solar, some for hydro.
“We are looking for a more creative approach. Certainly this area does not suit 200m high turbines. It’s not an appropriate development for this area.
If the two projects go-ahead, the landscape of that corner of Westmeath would be radically altered and its inhabitants quality of life would be greatly diminished, Daryl and other campaigners fear.
“There is not a single 200m turbine in this country, onshore or offshore, and I don’t know if there is a wind farm with 35 turbines either.
“Then you take into account that it is a flat, open landscape. Therefore they would utterly dominated. Galetech and BNM have increased the size of their wind masts, which are used to measure wind speed. Because they have gone up 100 metres, they have had to put red lights on top of them.
“The two red lights are so distinctive and there is light pollution at night. They could be four or five kilometres from my house but they are incredibly clear.
If you were surrounding by 35 of them, double the height, with red lights on top, it’s going to look like an oil rig. You are not only dealing with the impact on your environment during the day, but you are also dealing with them at night. In a landscape like this, the visibility would be from Trim to Ballynacargy.”
The elected members of the successive county councils have been steadfast in their opposition to wind farm development in Westmeath. In the current County Development Plan, which was completed last year, and its predecessor, councillors included the most stringent planning guidelines in the country relating to wind energy.
Like many of his council colleagues, Cllr Andrew Duncan has not been afraid to take a stance on the issue of wind energy that has been at odds with their party leadership.
He says that through their policies, Westmeath councillors have only been expressing the wishes of the people they represent.
“The one thing that they [wind energy developers] find hard to overcome is public opposition.
Ultimately local politicians do not want to be promoting something that is clearly not what is wanted in an area. That is the key. Westmeath is seen as the most anti-wind turbine county in Ireland.”
In the Milltown Gainstown area, Cllr Wallace says that the her community are ready for what is likely to be a long drawn out campaign.
“Most rural communities are quiet. They go about their work, but if you try and attack our very essence, you will see us roar.”
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