COUNCILLORS have voted to ban wind farms in Laois, against government policy and the advice of chief executive John Mulholland.
By ten votes to seven, councillors agreed to make the entire county a ‘no-go area’ for wind turbines.
However, the decision will not become council policy until next July at the earliest and it could be over-ruled by the environment minister.
The vote came at a county council meeting on the draft County Development Plan 2017-2023, as part of the second of three stages of public consultation. As expected, the controversial wind-energy issue took up the lion’s share of a meeting lasting more than four hours.
The long debate was attended by a range of anti-wind farm groups, which welcomed the vote. Marian Condren of Laois Wind Energy Awareness Group said: “We’re very happy with the outcome. We have fought for this for the past five years and we welcome the fact that councillors have educated themselves on the pitfalls of wind energy.”
Existing policy designates areas around Ballyroan, Timahoe and Spink, an area north of Mountmellick and an area north-west of Errill as either preferred areas or areas open to consideration for wind turbines (coloured yellow on map). The designated areas include Cullenagh Mountain, where Coillte controversially plans to erect 18 wind turbines.
Mr Mulholland recommended removal of the draft plan’s EN7 policy, which imposes restrictions that include a 1.5km setback for wind turbines, in order to comply with national policy and ministerial advice. His recommendation was rejected by councillors, who voted unanimously to retain the EN7 policy on the proposal of cllr Catherine Fitzgerald, seconded by cllr John Joe Fennelly.
Cllr Paschal McEvoy, seconded by cllr Mary Sweeney, proposed that the Spink catchment area be excluded from land open to consideration for wind turbines. Cllr Paddy Bracken made a similar proposal for a large area north of Mountmellick, including Clonaghadoo, while cllr John King proposed that all existing designated areas be excluded.
Cllr Sweeney asked whether the 1.5km setback could apply retrospectively to ‘live’ planning permissions. Senior planner Angela McEvoy replied that it could, but the policy had to be fully passed first with the adoption of the county development plan around next July. She added: “There may not be a plan in place regarding energy policy until the end of 2017.”
Director of services Kieran Kehoe confirmed that the environment minister could over-rule the council decision to retain the EN7 policy, because it was contrary to national guidelines. Mr Kehoe said: “He has done that in other counties and he could do the same here.”
Cllr Jerry Lodge felt that Laois could end up worse off if councillors voted to make the entire county a ‘no-go area’ for wind turbines if they could be over-ruled by the minister. He argued: “If we have some areas open to consideration, at least we have some control over it.”
He was supported by cllr Brendan Phelan, who said a total ban on wind turbines would leave the council wide open to being over-ruled by the minister. He believed that due to the EN7 policy imposing a 1.5km setback, nowhere in the Spink or Mountmellick catchment areas would qualify for wind farms anyway because of the large number of houses.
Cllr Bracken countered: “But if we have yellow (designated) areas, it says that we are happy with wind farms there and that’s not the case.”
Cllr Sweeney pointed out that Laois already has 32 wind turbines, way beyond the energy needs of the county’s population. She asked: “Why would we continue to grant approval for them when we don’t need them?”
Cllr Ben Brennan said his area has eight turbines and all wind energy produced is “exported” rather than used in Laois. He said people living near wind turbines had to endure noise and flashes that caused illness and stress, which could lead to cancer. He declared: “No turbines in Laois − end of story.”
Describing the turbines as “monsters” at up to 200m in height, cllr Noel Tuohy felt a 1.5km setback should be the bare minimum. He commented: “I wouldn’t like to be looking out the back of my house at one of them.”
Mr Mulholland told councillors that it would be “particularly problematic” if they did not zone any area for wind farms, as the likelihood was that the minister or an inspector would come in and do it for them. The chief executive said: “I think it’s always better to use your powers rather than not to use them. We saw this in the past in relation to the selection of landfill sites, where powers were taken away from elected members.”
Cllr Willie Aird suggested that councillors might be better off “hedging their bets” and leaving some areas open to wind farms. But cllr McEvoy felt that if the whole county was a ‘no-go area’, companies might move on to other counties to avoid planning problems.
Mr Kehoe confirmed that council policy of a 1.5km setback pertained in any case, irrespective of designated areas. If a department inspector selected areas, it would be done in consultation with the council and elected members.
Councillors voted by a 10/7 majority to make Laois a ‘no-go area’ for wind turbines. In favour were cllrs Willie Aird, Paddy Bracken, Ben Brennan, Catherine Fitzgerald, David Goodwin, John King, Paschal McEvoy, Tom Mulhall (cathaoirleach), Mary Sweeney and Noel Tuohy.
Against were cllrs Caroline Dwane Stanley, John Joe Fennelly, James Kelly, Jerry Lodge, Seamus McDonald, Aidan Mullins and Brendan Phelan. Absent were cllrs Pádraig Fleming and John Moran.