Back to drawing board for 200MW Victoria solar farm, as VCAT dismisses appeal

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VCAT upholds local council decision that 200MW Bookaar Solar farm should not go ahead in south-west Victoria, due to “deficiencies” of planning application.

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Plans to build a 200MW solar farm in Camperdown in Victoria remain at a standstill after an appeal to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal failed to overturn the local council’s decision to block the project.

The Bookaar solar farm – a joint project of Infinergy Pacific and the McArthur family who own the land slated for the development – has proposed to install 700,000 PV panels, inverters, a substation and battery storage.

But the project met with strong local opposition for reasons including its size, visual impact and loss of agricultural land. And in September 2018, it was voted down by the Corangamite Shire Council over what were described as “lineball” planning issues – no doubt helped over that line by broader community concerns.

“(It’s) not a bad proposal but it’s in an inappropriate locality,” said then Councillor – and current Corangamite Mayor – Neil Trotter. “There’s been a lot of emotion and finger-pointing in this, but strip that out and it’s a planning decision.

“In a planning sense, it’s a lineball call, but I will come down on the side of the community,” he said.

The case then went to VCAT, where the Tribunal appears to have come to a similar conclusion to the Council, pointing to “deficiencies” in the project’s planning application, particularly around flooding and fire risks at the site.

“The deficiencies in the proposal therefore lead us to a decision that the application, as currently framed, should be refused,” the ruling says.

“Our decision may nonetheless assist in the preparation and consideration of any fresh application.”

The case, described this week by Trotter as “an expensive way to find out you were right” has also been linked with recent state changes to development guidelines around solar farm development.

The state Labor government released its final draft of the development guidelines for large-scale solar farms in July, to help ensure projects targeted appropriate locations, were easily accessible to the grid and took into account land-use and ecosystems.

The draft also included guidelines for best practice on social licence, to help developers to engage effectively with communities and “ensure the least possible environmental and social impacts of their proposals.”

Judging by the key objections of locals to Bookaar solar farm, these guidelines might have come in handy for this project – in particular for the council, which has had to navigate the complex development approval process on its own.

Corangamite Shire councillors noted in their decision about Bookaar that while wind farms have to be approved by the state, solar farm approval falls to local government.

“When it comes to solar, we haven’t got any guidelines,” former Corangamite Shire Mayor Jo Beard said in comments to the ABC in September 2018.

“We’re pretty lacking in direction when it comes to [planning] framework in our particular part of Australia.”

And in comments in March to the Warrnambool Standard, Trotter – who is the Shire’s current Mayor – said going to VCAT was “not a cheap option,” but that the hearing was regarded as a test case.

That’s partly because big solar farms are not common in the region, which has been much more popular for wind energy developments – Victoria’s south-west plays host to nearly half of all wind farms in operation or in the development pipeline in the state, according to National Wind Farm Commissioner Andrew Dyer.

And while the wind energy industry in Victoria has learned the hard way about the importance of community support, or “social licence” to a renewable project’s success, concerns have been growing that the solar industry has not heeded these lessons.

The next step for the Bookaar poject remains to be seen, but comments from VCAT about the “preparation and consideration of any fresh application” suggest all is not lost for its developers.

Infinergy has made no formal statement on the VCAT decision on its website, and the other party to the development, the MacArthur family, continues to stay quiet on the matter.

Stewart McArthur, who owns the land that would host the solar farm, was a federal Liberal Party MP for the Victorian Division of Corangamite from 1984 until his defeat in 2007. Bev McArthur is currently serving as a Victorian Liberal MP representing the Western Victoria Region.

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