A group of residents in south-west Victoria are cheering the rejection of an application to build a 6 square kilometre solar farm near their town.
Corangamite Shire received 81 objections to the project, which would have seen 700,000 solar panels installed on 554 hectares of farmland at Bookaar, 10 kilometres north-west of Camperdown.
The solar farm would have been bigger than Camperdown itself, which has a population of about 3,300 and covers about 4 square kilometres.
Opponents to the solar farm cited a lengthy list of concerns about the proposal, including visual amenity, road use during construction and glint and glare, and fire risk and firefighting access concerns.
The effect of night lighting, the impact on wildlife, drainage issues, noise, nearby property devaluations, and the possibility of micro-climate changes were also highlighted by the project’s detractors.
But the key issue that the Corangamite Shire councillors rallied behind was the loss of agricultural land.
“You can’t cut down a tree without having to replace the tree, but you can wipe out 1500 hectares of farmland while in the middle of the worst drought in Australia’s living history?” Councillor Simon Illingworth said during Tuesday night’s meeting.
“Solar appears most suited to places that do not grow food.”
Cr Neil Trotter said the solar farm was “not a bad proposal but it’s in an inappropriate locality”.
“There’s been a lot of emotion and finger-pointing in this, but strip that out and it’s a planning decision,” Cr Trotter said.
“In a planning sense, it’s a lineball call, but I will come down on the side of the community.”
Reviewing the decision
The Bookaar Solar Farm was a joint project between renewables company Infinergy Pacific and the landowners, the McArthur family.
McArthur family patriarch and former federal Liberal backbencher Stewart McArthur refused to comment.
Project manager Richard Seymour previously told the ABC the property had “characteristics that make it a good place for a solar farm” such as flat topography, nearby transmission lines, good sunlight, and no significant environmental constraints.
Following last night’s meeting, a project spokesperson refused to say whether the matter would be taken to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal.
“We’ll take some time to review the decision,” the spokesperson said.
Needing a guiding light
Corangamite Shire councillors raised concerns about a lack of guidance from the State Government on the matter.
While wind farms have to be approved by the state planning minister, solar farm approval falls to local government.
“When it comes to solar, we haven’t got any guidelines,” Corangamite Shire Mayor Jo Beard said.
“We’re pretty lacking in direction when it comes to [planning] framework in our particular part of Australia.”
This issue raised its head recently when Greater Shepparton City Council declared itself ill-equipped to approve solar developments in its shire.
A spokesperson for state planning minister Richard Wynne said “clear guidelines for the assessment of solar farm applications in Victoria” were in development.
“The minister is considering a report from an independent planning panel on the four Greater Shepparton applications,” the spokesperson said.
“We will deliver the panel report and our response very soon.”
Bookaar dairy farmer Andrew Duynhoven said he was pleased with the outcome but said he did not know what the future held for renewable energy projects in agricultural areas.
“I’m not against solar,” he said.
“I’m investigating solar to go on my dairy because we are a big user of power.
“But it’s been indicated now by this decision that there’s not enough governance, or regulation, or information for us or for councils.”