Minister could overturn council’s wind energy policy

Westmeath’s newly formed policy on wind energy could be overturned by the Department of the Environment if it is found to be out of step with national policy, it emerged this week.

At a meeting on Tuesday to finalise the County Development Plan for the next six years, councillors refused to undo changes they had made to the draft plan, which go against recommendations made by Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan.

Councillors are insisting that large scale windfarms should only be located on cutaway peatlands, and that they are set back 10 times the height of the turbine from any residential dwellings.

They are also proposing a definition of industrial or large scale windfarms as those with more than five turbines, a height of over 100m, or having a total output of over 5MW.

However the Minister has expressed serious concerns in relation to the proposed amendments, which he says would render the Westmeath County Development Plan “seriously out of step with stated Government policy”.

The Department of the Environment says both the definition of industrial scale projects, and the minimum separation distances are premature, as a review of the National Guidelines on Wind Energy is not yet complete.

There is further concern that the proposed setback distances would mean most of the county would be excluded from consideration for wind turbines.

However councillors refused to agree to the Minister’s recommendation that the County Development Plan be reworded to say that Westmeath’s wind energy policy will be reviewed in the light of the national review.

Many felt that it was worth their while taking a strong stance, as one of the first counties to be faced with drafting a policy on wind energy.

Cllr Denis Leonard reminded councillors that over 2,500 people had made submissions to the plan on the subject of windfarms, while Cllr Peter Keaney said he hoped that by insisting on these guidelines Westmeath could influence government policy.

However Cllr Ken Glynn said that while he felt Westmeath’s stance would send a very clear message back to the Government, he was concerned that “this could all be overwritten in a couple of months”.

Minister Hogan now has two weeks to consider the council’s proposals and to decide whether members have taken sufficient notice of his recommendations.

County manager Barry Kehoe informed councillors that the Minister may accept the policy, or if he decides it is inappropriate or at variance with national policy he can issue a Section 31 notice, which means the issue would have to be opened to public consultation again.

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