Birdwoodton residents opposed to the development of three agri-solar farms in the area will know later this month whether they will be given the green light, with Mildura Rural City Council expected to hear the matter at its August 22 meeting.

By VINNIE RODI

THE fate of three contentious agri-solar farms earmarked for the Birdwoodton area is expected to be decided at Mildura Rural City Council’s August 22 meeting.

The three agri-solar farms, and their proposed location near high-density residential areas in Lake Street, Fifth Street and McKays Road, has sparked community outcry over the past few months, with concerned residents calling on the proponents behind the developments, PowerVault Mildura, to ‘Relocate the Solar’ to more viable locations, something the local group says is not an option.

Objectors have expressed concerns about the close proximity of the proposed sites to nearby residences, the effect they may have on property values, and their use of horticultural land which objectors believe should be protected under the Mildura Old Irrigation Area scheme.

Issues have also been raised regarding a lack of guidelines and State legislation concerning solar development, with Birdwoodton residents Andrew and Sharon Sutherland, whose River Avenue property shares a border with one of the proposed sites, telling the Mildura Weekly two weeks ago that this lack of legislation, guidelines and regulation meant Council was “ill-equipped” to decide whether the developments should proceed.

They indicated “a precedent” had been set by Shepparton Council recently, which chose to refer a decision on a solar farm application to the State Government, citing an inability to make a decision due to a lack of guidelines, regulations and policies for local councils.

That referral by Shepparton Council has since become the subject of a planning panel, which presented its finding to the Victorian Planning Minister late last month.

However any recommendations made within that report are not expected to be acted on until after the November State election.

A Community Objectors Meeting last Sunday was attended by an estimated 200 people, including concerned residents, Mildura Councillors, State election candidates and Member for Mildura Peter Crisp, RIGHT.

Mr Crisp said he had been working with objectors for “quite a while”, and agreed the selected Birdwoodton sites were “not the right places” for such developments.

“Where I’m at with this is that we have to have a dose of political reality,” Mr Crisp said. “This is linked to Shepparton in that there is not a lot of guidelines or regulations around solar in high-density population areas.

“I understand that the Planning Minister has, or is about to have, that report relating to Shepparton’s concerns, and no doubt that will contain recommendations that the Minister will look at and get advice from his department.

“The Minister, if he chooses to accept that advice, may necessitate changes in regulations, or it may require changes to legislation.

“Victorian Parliament only has four sitting weeks left before the November election, so that doesn’t leave time to draft new legislation and get it through Parliament.”

Mr Crisp said essentially the matter would come down to a Council decision.

“Council is in a no-win situation,” he said. “I think it will go to VCAT (the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal) regardless of which way Councillors vote, and VCAT won’t touch this case while legislation is up in the air.”

Mr Crisp, however, believes there is an opportunity to make “everyone a winner”, and has called on Council to take the lead and identify alternative pieces of land to house the proposed sites.

“Council does not want this to drag on, the proponents don’t want this to drag on, while the objectors want to go to Christmas with this resolved,” he said. “There is room for Local Government to sit down with the proponents and others and try and find an alternate.”

Mr Crisp, who has a background as an electrical engineer, believes the site of the old Koorlong Landfill could be a viable alternative.

According to Mr Crisp, the site provides an opportunity to “tap into the grid”, providing PowerVault with access to the 66kv powerlines that run nearby.

“The fact remains that horticulture is booming in Mildura, and there is strong demand for land where you can get water,” he said. “The proposed locations for these solar farms is on prime horticultural land, and I strongly believe more viable sites are available.

“We need solar in this region for our and the State’s future… both industries – solar and horticulture – are key to our ongoing viability.

“I urge Council to take the lead and help make everyone a winner.”

PowerVault Mildura director Steve Timmis said that while the local group was “willing to look at any proposal”, they had not been approached by Mr Crisp or Council with an alternative.

“At this stage the sites selected are considered the only viable sites due to their proximity to the Merbein Sub-Station,” he said. “To my knowledge the Koorlong Landfill site does not provide access to the capability we need.

“There are also other reasons why we have picked these sites, and it is due to the fact that we are proposing to build the nation’s first agri-solar farms – we are one of the first groups trying to integrate agriculture and solar together.

“If allowed to go ahead, these sites will enact irrigation back onto these properties – we will be using these sites to develop new agribusiness, and open the door for new agricultural opportunities.

“We’re currently talking to a Victorian State university about being a part of this, while also working with SuniTAFE.

“I urge Council to make a considered decision on these applications, especially regarding our region’s desire to become the solar capital of Australia.”

Council this week confirmed that it had not sought further advice from the Victorian Government in relation to the applications, however a spokesperson said the State Government had been notified of the applications via its local offices as part of the normal planning process.

Council said Shepparton Council’s decision to call in a solar planning application would not affect any planning determination, saying all applications in Mildura were assessed against Mildura Planning Scheme provisions.

The spokesperson said in response to Mr Crisp’s suggestion to take the lead on finding an alternative, that Council’s role is to receive planning applications, and assess them against the Mildura Planning Scheme provisions.