A 200MW solar farm proposed for development in Camperdown in Victoria’s south west will go before the Victorian Civil Appeals Tribunal, after it was rejected by council in the face of a groundswell of opposition from local farmers.
In what shapes as a landmark battle over land use, the Warrnambool Standard reports that nine days of hearings have been set aside by VCAT to hear the case, after Corangamite Shire Council voted against issuing a permit to the project in September.
The Bookaar solar farm – a joint project of Infinergy Pacific and the McArthur family who own the 554-hectare site slated for the development – proposes to install 700,000 PV panels, inverters, a substation and battery storage.
But the Bookaar Renewables project has faced strong local opposition – it reportedly received 80 objections and only five submissions in support – for reasons including its size, visual impact and loss of agricultural land.
At the time of the vote in September last year, Corangamite Shire Councillor Neil Trotter said the key issue that councillors had rallied behind was the loss of agricultural land, but also indicated that it had been “lineball call” in terms of planning.
“(It’s) not a bad proposal but it’s in an inappropriate locality,” he said.
“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.”
One of the leading opponents of the solar farm, local dairy farmer and Bookaar CFA captain Andrew Dynhoven, also stressed that he was not “anti solar,” but said the project was too big, and suggested the communication and community engagement around the project had been less than satisfactory.
“I’m not against solar ….I’m investigating solar to go on my dairy because we are a big user of power,” he said.
“But it’s been indicated now by this decision that there’s not enough governance, or regulation, or information for us or for councils.”
Interestingly, solar farms are a rarity 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.
As we have reported on RenewEconomy – and as the very existence of a National Wind Farm Commissioner makes clear – Australia’s wind energy industry is now well versed on the importance of community support, or “social licence,” to a project’s success.
But not before a years-long “unravelling of community support” for large-scale wind – starting in around 2009 and fanned by unsupportive state and federal governments – that almost brought the industry undone.
The wind industry has done much to improve its community engagement and govern social licence in the industry since then, but there has been some concern – in the final stretch to meet the federal Renewable Energy Target of 33,000GWh – that similar mistakes could be made around solar.
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 last September.
“We’re pretty lacking in direction when it comes to [planning] framework in our particular part of Australia.”
In comments this week to the Warrnambool Standard, Trotter – who the paper says 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.
Objector Andrew Duynhoven told the paper his group had struggled to get legal representation for the hearing.
“We’re fighting the big end of town now,” he said. “No one’s willing to stand up with us.”
He said the company was “throwing a lot of money” at the hearing and he described it as a “fight against a million dollars”.
The other party to the development, the MacArthur family, has stayed 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.