Michelle Weir (Local Democracy Reporter)
Buckna wind farm approval sparks enquiry after recommendation for refusal
A local public inquiry is to be held into a planning application for a new wind farm at Buckna in County Antrim which was approved by Mid and East Antrim councillors despite a recommendation for refusal.
The proposed £25m development consisting of seven turbines was given the go-ahead at Carnalbanagh Road, midway between Broughshane and Ballygally, by the council’s Planning Committee last November.
A letter has been received by the local authority from the Department for Infrastructure stating that the application was “called-in” by the Department on March 27.
“Following consideration of this application, the minister has decided that for the purpose of considering representations made in respect of this application, that the Department should cause a public local inquiry to be held by the Planning Appeals Commission."
The Commission’s task is to conduct a public local inquiry or hearing and prepare a report with recommendations to the Department. The Department must consider the Commission’s report before making its decision.
Section 29 of the 2011 Planning Act enables the Department to give a direction requiring an application made to a local authority to be referred to it instead of being dealt with by the council.
The council’s principal planning officer Gary McGuinness told councillors at a meeting of the Planning Committee last November that the application had received 962 letters of objection and 518 letters of support.
The letters of support outlined benefits for renewable energy targets, employment opportunities and a community fund. Letters of objection, he said, focused on potential impact on the landscape, tourism issues, safety and shadow flicker.
The officer reported the turbines would be 72.5 metres in height and the blades would have a diameter of 125 metres. He noted that the RSPB expressed “major concerns” with regard to the decline of curlews and hen harriers which nest in the area.
Chris Perry ,of DAERA’s Natural Environment Division, told the meeting it is a “nationally important site” for hen harriers and the curlew which have both suffered “dramatic decline” in recent years.
“Sites such as this are protected for the future of the species,” he added.
“The proposed wind farm would result in the loss of habitat and is likely to lead to permanent displacement of the hen harrier. The Antrim Hills is one of the strongholds for the curlew in Northern Ireland.”
He went on to say it was “unlikely” that they would return to the site if the habitat is not suitable.
In response to a query by Coast Road Sinn Fein Councillor James McKeown, he indicated there are one or two breeding pairs of curlew at the location.
Cllr Tom Gordon said: “I think if the birds were displaced, they would come back.”
He proceeded to give the example of The Gobbins in Islandmagee where the council was advised by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency against placing mesh on rock to prevent rock falls.
However, he reported that the council decided to put mesh in place and that birds have “come back in their thousands”.
Michelle Hill, of RSPB, stated that the importance of the area to the curlew “cannot be understated” adding that the decline of this species has “plummeted”.
She reported that 19.3 per cent of the species in Northern Ireland can be found in the area.
Knockagh Independent Cllr Bobby Hadden asked if existing wind farms have had a detrimental impact on the bird population.
Dr Neil McCulloch, of DAERA’s Natural Environment Division, reported a decline of 43 per cent within 500 metres of sites and “no indication” of any recovery in numbers.
“The effect does not appear to be short term. I would suggest there is a decline at a number of these sites.”
Speaking in favour of the application, then Mayor of Mid and East Antrim, Cllr William McCaughey, said that if the application is refused, the “detrimental effect will be widely felt in Mid and East Antrim”.
“Seventeen hill farm families will be negatively impacted. Their attempts to diversify will be negatively affected. Critical income will be lost over 25 years, the life of these turbines.”
Cllr McCaughey went on to say that although he “cares deeply about our environment”, he spoke of the need to “shift to renewables”.
He noted that the applicant, Abo Wind, planned to set aside 66 hectares for curlews and hen harriers. He said: “This sets aside a unique opportunity to secure a managed habitat for birds and wildlife.”
He proceeded to question how the borough could be “taken seriously” in terms of clean tech energy if the application is refused.
Larne Lough Alliance Cllr Robert Logan commented: “I do not think any of us is against renewable energy. However, this is a special protection area.”
He advised that the planned project should not “affect the integrity of the European site”.
Ballymena SDLP Cllr Eugene Reid said: “The benefits of this wind farm are clear – a major reduction in carbon emissions and enough green energy to power 22,000 homes.”
Bannside TUV Cllr Timothy Gaston noted the scheme has been reduced from 10 turbines proposed initially and he highlighted potential “economic benefits” that it would bring to the area through a £25m investment which he estimated could bring in rates of £4.7m. A community fund of £1.8m is also proposed.
East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson remarked upon the height of the turbines on a “wild and open landscape with a full view from Slemish”. “The visual impact will be enormous,” he suggested.
He cautioned that the decision taken would “set a precedent for further applications”.
He also suggested that neighbouring properties should be at least one kilometre from the site. He indicated there are 50 properties which could be subject to noise and flicker.
He claimed that wind farms are not “green machines”, would have “little or no economic benefit”, adding that there is already “sufficient capacity in the system”.
Larne Lough Ulster Unionist Cllr Keith Turner reported that the Public Health Agency has said there is “little or no risk to population” associated with this type of facility.
Carnalbanagh resident Jayne McCaw said she believed it would have a “negative impact” on the site of Slemish.
She went on to say that she chose to move to Carnalbanagh for “peace and tranquility” for her son who is autistic. She said she may have to move from the village if the application is approved indicating that it could have a “detrimental impact” on her son’s “quality of life”.
Larne Lough DUP Alderman Paul Reid asked about the proximity of homes to the proposed wind farm claiming that “every house in Carnalbanagh” would be within the buffer zone.
Addressing the meeting, Tamzin Fraser, of Abo Wind, said: “I am absolutely astonished there has been no reference to the impact on climate change.”
She went on to say that there is “no direct evidence” of the risk of displacement to hen harriers. “This proposal presents the best opportunity to grant management of the habitat and to ensure it is in good condition for the hen harrier.
“The curlew impact is low. An extensive swathe of additional land will be put in place to support the curlew population long-term. The landscape was scrutinised in detail at the last appeal. The raft of significant benefits far outweighs any perceived impacts.”
She continued to say that it would provide energy for 38 per cent of homes in the borough.
“The eyes of the world are on the UK. If the council is serious about tackling climate change, this proposal is an opportunity to make a bold statement and do something tangible.”
Farmer Tom Butler told the meeting the project would benefit 17 land owners and assist farms to be “sustained for years to come”.
Cllr McKeown stressed that the committee must base its decision strictly on planning policy.
Mr McGuinness noted that it is “quite a prominent site within this area”.
Ald Reid said the committee had to make a difficult decision which involved a “lot of soul-searching” before proposing the committee accepted the officer’s recommendation to refuse the application.
His proposal was seconded by Cllr Logan who agreed it was a “very difficult decision”.
“I think these wind turbines would be in the wrong place. I would like to see much more effort to have wind turbines at sea.”
Cllr Turner commented that the wind farm would be a scheme to “help save the planet” adding that there was a “small risk to wildlife in the area”.
“I will be voting to refuse the officer’s recommendation. I believe it is in the borough’s best interests to go forward with this project.”
Cllr Turner proposed the committee did not accept the proposal to refuse the application. His proposal was carried following a vote with six councillors in favour and five against.