Councillors demand meeting with Minister after “misleading” windfarm consultation

Westmeath County Council is inviting Minister for the Environment Simon Coveney to meet with a deputation from the council, after confusion arose over an apparent mistake in a Ministerial direction to the council regarding windfarm development in the county.

Westmeath County Council recently concluded a two-week public consultation on the Ministerial direction, which ended on June 14. However at Monday’s council meeting Cllr Andrew Duncan (FG ) argued that the council had misinterpreted the direction from the Minister on the subject of the designation of a large area of the county as an area of low windfarm capacity.

The ongoing saga arose after a direction was issued by Minister Coveney on May 19, which effectively overturned a variation they had made to the County Development Plan with the intention of placing certain limits on windfarm development.

The direction called on the council to delete the variation, which aimed to impose a night time noise limit of 30db, define equine facilities as noise-sensitive receptors, and designate Area 7 of the wind development map - an area to the east and northeast of Athlone which includes land close to the Hill of Uisneach - as an area of low capacity.

However, the direction appears to have been open to misinterpretation, as Cllr Duncan pointed out that the Ministerial direction placed ‘strikethrough’ lines through the first two of these provisions, but not through the provision relating to the designation of Area 7.

He originally raised this issue at the council’s meeting on June 13, and the meeting was adjourned several times to seek clarification from the Department. CEO Pat Gallagher and the council’s executive were of the understanding that the direction also sought a reversal of the councillors’ decision to redesignate the area in question from ‘medium’ to ‘low’ capacity, and the reply from the Department that day confirmed this interpretation.

However on Monday, Cllr Duncan presented an email from Minister Coveney’s secretary stating that the classification of Area 7 as an area of low capacity was not to be deleted, and said that Deputy Peter Burke had been personally informed of same by the Minister.

“We are now in a quandry as Westmeath County Council have advertised falsely and engaged people in a process that doesn’t exist,” he said.

“Area 7 was never intended to be included in the Minister’s direction. The Minister is clear that the only changes are in relation to noise levels. We have misled the public - it’s a mistake, but how are we going to rectify it?”

Cllr Paul Hogan (SF ) said he was “astonished” that the situation had come to this. “At the last meeting we adjourned several times. We received an email from a Department official, and were, I suppose, forced into making our submission before the deadline. [Today’s] email is all the clarification we need,” he said.

Cllr Ken Glynn (FF ) said the only option was to go back to the beginning of the public consultation process.

CEO Pat Gallagher confirmed that the email presented by Cllr Duncan on Monday was contrary to the previous communication from the Department.

“Important information has been put before us today and it is contrary to the clarification which was given to us. We need to clarify with the Department where they stand regarding the previous communication,” he said.

A suggestion from Cllr Tom Farrell that a deputation be sent to meet the Minister was unanimously agreed.

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