By VINNIE RODI

POWERVAULT Mildura says it is disappointed with Mildura Rural City Council’s decision this week to officially refuse its request to grant permits for three proposed agri-solar farms earmarked for the region’s Farming Zone.

PowerVault Mildura director Steve Timmis yesterday said the group was unsure whether it would contest Council’s decision through the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), saying the message was “loud and clear” from Council that investment in “innovative farming and integrated agri-solar farming” was not welcome in the region.

“Which is a shame,” he said. “We’re disappointed and really sad for the people in Merbein. This was going to be a win for them despite what has been said.

“We have 60 days to assess whether we challenge through VCAT, however Council has made it clear that we are not welcome in this region.

“We feel this might be our last effort to invest in this district, our feeling is that we may pull out of Mildura altogether because it is clear Council do not want us here.”

Mildura Councillors spent more than an hour-and-a-half debating PowerVault’s three proposals – earmarked for Fifth Street, Merbein, McKays Road, Birdwoodton, and Lake Street Mildura – ultimately deciding to vote against the development of all three sites.

Council’s planners had recommended that all three proposals be refused based on the fact that they provided “no positive agricultural outcomes”, however Cr Min Poole moved motions to grant permits for all three sites throughout the course of Wednesday’s meeting.

These motions were defeated, and the original planning recommendations supported.

Cr Poole said the decision facing Council “was not easy to make.”

“We’re in uncharted water locally, with this proposal being the first of its kind,” she said. “There is lots of emotions involved as they are near residences and they are also within the Mildura Older Irrigation Area (MOIA). Nationally, this topic is causing division amongst many.”

Cr Poole referenced media coverage which referred to solar as “farming the sun” during the debate, saying that it had reinvigorated communities across the country.

“I believe the proposals are consistent with the local policy and our Council plan with regards to our community aim for Mildura to be Australia’s centre of the solar industry,” she said.

Cr Glenn Milne also spoke in favour of all three applications, agreeing that they were difficult decisions to make based on “the emotion around the issue.”

“The first thing that we need to look at is where in the planning scheme is this development prohibited – and it’s not,” he said. “In fact, renewable energy is mentioned in our Mildura Planning Scheme. It requires a permit according to the scheme.

“In January I did ask if we could meet with the (Victorian) Planning Minister to discuss this very issue, and we haven’t done that. I think at some stage the Minister and the State Government have to stand up and make some sort of decision about solar power generation in Farming Zones.

“I believe this fits within our Planning Scheme because it can be done with a permit. The original recommendation did mention that there is no positive outcome for agriculture, however, I’ve gone out and had a look, and there’s some fairly big sheds… there’s a need for electricity. We need power. There’s certainly a benefit to have a solar power plant.”

Cr Milne also addressed discussion about the proposals “taking valuable horticultural land out of production”, arguing that the proposals would not take away irrigated land.

“There’s plenty of it out there,” he said. “This is also a use that can be removed in the future, ensuring that the land can be used for horticultural purposes again if that is deemed appropriate. There’s no degradation to the land.”

Cr Milne also raised the impact of the drought over the past decade, and how it had led to several properties being “dried off” and taken out of production.

“Our community needs options,” he said. “If we have a chance to generate energy and have another income generated from that land, we actually need to look at it.

“I can see no reason under our planning laws for these proposals to be knocked back.”

Cr Simon Clemence spoke against all three proposals, saying that the significance of horticultural land in Mildura “can not be overstated.”

“We’ve been directed by the State to protect the MOIA… we sought advice on this issue from DELWP (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning), and were advised that there’s no legislation or guidelines, and that we should make our own determination based on current legislation and regulation,” he said.

Cr Clemence also raised the issue of how close the sites would be to nearby residences, saying that he had conducted “significant research” into the potential impact they could have on these homes.

“I’ve never seen anything like this where there is a solar farm so close to so many homes,” he said. “This is about people. These people will be negatively affected.”

Cr Clemence referenced research undertaken in the US, which found that the ‘heat island effect’ caused by solar farms could lead to the temperature 400m around a site rising by 3ºC to 4ºC on average.

“We have to look after these people… they deserve our support and they deserve our help, and they shouldn’t be living with that kind of significant degradation to their lifestyle,” he said.

Cr Clemence also raised concerns of what a potential rise in temperature could do to nearby fruit-producing properties and residents, and also questioned the sites’ ability to house agricultural use.

Cr Jason Modica also spoke against the proposals, saying that while the country was in a transitional period regarding energy generation, he was “struggling to come to terms with the impact the sites would have on nearby residences.”

“Solar has not been tested in a rural/residential area,” he said. “My deepest concern is about having an industrial solar facility where people have spent a lot of time, effort and money to have a lifestyle.”

Cr Modica called for more work to be done to ensure solar could be developed away from the MOIA, ensuring that horticulture and solar can both operate in the region.

Cr Milne also called for more research to be undertaken to investigate how solar proposals can be implemented in the region, with Cr Clemence added that moves were being made to install infrastructure to accommodate more solar facilities “in the right areas.”

Both Crs Milne and Clemence also called on the Victorian Planning Minister to stop “sitting on his hands” and provide further guidance on solar developments.

“Direction is needed, that is evident in the split we are seeing in Council tonight,” Cr Clemence said.