Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, Eoghan Murphy, has warned local councils that he could use his powers under Section 31 of the Planning and Development Act to overrule any variations they make to County Development Plans regarding windfarms.
It follows the move by a number of county councils, including Westmeath, to bring in new guidelines that would limit the amount of available land on which to build windfarms.
Concerned regarding the proximity of windfarms to homes, councillors unanimously agreed on new set back distances which they have attempted to insert into the County Development Plan.
The set back distances agreed on are: 500 metres where the height of the wind turbine generator is greater than 25m but does not exceed 50m; 1,000m where the height of the generator is greater than 50m but does not exceed 1000m; 1,500m when the height of the turbine generator is greater than 100m but does not exceed 150m; and more than 2,000m when the height of the turbine is greater than 150m. The turbine generators being proposed are 175m and 180m high.
Minister Murphy has issued a warning that he will use his power to overrule any council's attempts to enact variations which are at odds with national policy on energy and meeting EU regulations. If Ireland fails to meet a target of generating 16 per cent of energy from wind and other renewable sources by 2020, a penalty of up to €120 million will be imposed by the EU for every 1 per cent the State falls below target.
Labour councillor Johnny Penrose said the move by the Minister amounts to a slap in the face for local democracy.
"I am hugely disappointed with the Minister," he said. "We are democratically elected to voice the concerns of the people of Longford-Westmeath. We adopted a variation to the Westmeath County Development Plan, and that is inserted into the plan for 2014 to 2020. That was for the set back distance.
"That was adopted by all councillors on the day. We are two and a half or three years trying to get this put into the County Development Plan, and for a Minister to come along and overrule us, it is taking all power away from democratically elected councillors."
Cllr Penrose said he will continue to fight to have the variations upheld.
"This won't change anything," he said. "We have given a commitment to the people and we will stand by that."
Cllr Penrose has called on all local Government deputies to lobby the Minister to ensure the variations made are upheld.