NOT GOOD ENOUGH: Birdwoodton residents Andrew and Sharon Sutherland believe the State Government’s failure to update planning legislations and guidelines around solar developments has left residents unprotected.

By VINNIE RODI

OBJECTORS to three proposed solar farms in Birdwoodton believe a failure by the State Government to effectively update planning legislation to keep pace with the growing solar industry has left them exposed and unprotected.

Birdwoodton residents Andrew and Sharon Sutherland, whose River Avenue property shares a border with one of the proposed sites, say the lack of planning legislation, guidelines and regulations around solar infrastructure also means that Mildura Rural City Council is ill-equipped to make a decision as to whether the developments should proceed.

Council is currently reviewing the proposals submitted by local group PowerVault Mildura, with the sites earmarked for Fifth Street, McKays Road and Lake Street.

The Sutherland’s property neighbours the proposed Fifth Street site, which if given the green light will have a capacity of 7.5MW, and will create enough electricity to power 2500 homes.

The footprint of the panels associated with the farm will be 5.8 hectares, and will include 29,680 flat photovoltaic solar panels with a total area of 58,055m2, three inverters and transformers housed in a modified shipping container.

Chain-mesh fencing will also border the perimeter of the site.

Plans for all three sites are currently available for public viewing and submissions through Council, with more than 120 Birdwoodton residents united in their belief that the solar farms will be situated too close to nearby residences, and will be established on land that should be protected for agricultural/horticultural use.

“Our major concern is the lack of legislation, planning guidelines and regulations, and consequently lack of protection for residents impacted by this proposal,” Sharon said.

“There’s actually more restrictions placed on what you can do with putting a shipping container on your property than what there is with solar at the moment.

“The Planning Scheme is thousands of pages long and is quite detailed, yet when it comes to solar, there’s only a couple of paragraphs really.”

Sharon and Andrew have taken their concerns to the Victorian Ombudsman in the hopes of being heard.

“We have stressed that due to a lack of legislation and protections at a State and local council level, Mildura councillors should not be tasked with making the decision on these three applications,” Sharon said.

“A precedent was actually set by Shepparton Council recently, which chose to refer a decision on solar applications to the State Government, citing an inability to make a decision based on a lack of guidelines, regulations and policies for local councils.

“As we stated in our letter to the Ombudsman, what sets these local applications apart from other solar installations in Victoria, and I suspect Australia, is the proposed location of the sites. It’s unprecedented.

“I am requesting that Council proceed with foresight and care in this decision.”

A lack of information concerning solar infrastructure has also been cause for concern for Mildura Councillor Glenn Milne, who has requested Council seek clarification from the State Planning Minister on three separate occasions to determine what Council can and can’t do in this space.

Concerned residents have called for the solar developments to be relocated to more suitable locations, and have even gone as far as establishing ‘relocate the solar’ signage on their properties, while also starting a social media campaign.

Other objections raised include a potential impact on the marketability and value of nearby properties, an impact to the visual amenity of the area and a lack of planning foresight regarding the decommissioning of the site.

“As we have seen with the Carwarp Solar Farm, facilities can be unviable for whatever reason, and nowhere in the application does it state who is responsible for decommissioning the site,” Andrew said.

“There is a growing number of solar installations around the Mildura/Sunraysia area, and they are all suitably located in dryland areas away from residences.”

Sharon said the proposal was also an insult to the soldier-settlers who helped establish the Merbein and Birdwoodton area, and also went against Council’s strategy concerning the Mildura Old Irrigation Area (MOIA).

“My grandfather was a soldier-settler here as part of the MOIA, and I’m a third generation Birdwoodton resident,” she said. “These developments are an insult to the history of the area.

“The MOIA is ‘valued for the landscape amenity it provides, in particular for rural residential living which is a fundamental part of the character and identity of Mildura’ according to Council’s Planning Scheme.”

Sharon and Andrew said they had also contacted Victorian Planning Minister Richard Wynne with their concerns, and received a response which placed the onus back on Mildura Councillors to make a decision.

Member for Mildura Peter Crisp this week agreed that State Government legislation around solar was ‘silent’.

“Shepparton Council did in fact refer its decision to a planning panel, which I believe is close to presenting its recommendations to the Planning Minister and Shepparton Council,” he said. “It would be in Council’s best interest to wait for that panel to report back, and for the Planning Minister to make some sort of recommendation.”

Concerned Birdwoodton residents are planning to hold a community objectors meeting on Sunday, August 5, at 11am at 51 McKays Road, Birdwoodton, with all-comers welcome.

Sharon and Andrew said that Mr Crisp and several Mildura Councillors had indicated they will attend the meeting.

No planning determination has been made regarding any of the three sites, with PowerVault Mildura last month also holding a public forum to address resident concerns.