Solar farm approval process angers objectors

By Rodney Woods

Outrage and disappointment sums up the feelings of objectors towards the approval of three solar farms in the Greater Shepparton area, despite new guidelines not yet being implemented into the planning scheme.

Planning Minister Richard Wynne has approved permits for the Tatura East, Tallygaroopna and Lemnos solar farms, which he had deferred until further strategic work was undertaken on the future use and management of irrigation infrastructure in the Goulburn Murray Irrigation District, and consultation was completed on the now released solar guidelines.

Despite these guidelines being available, they have not been incorporated into the planning scheme, meaning the permits were assessed against the current planning framework, something that has angered objectors.

"It's outrageous and a betrayal of a fair and open process," Toolamba orchardist Peter Hall said.

"At the planning panel they said the information heard there would contribute to new planning guidelines.

"If that panel produced those guidelines, then the decisions should be consistent with the guidelines by default.

"This is a government looking for headlines and feel-good stories about how they are solving the energy crisis while disregarding communities."

Tallygaroopna dairy farmer Natalie Akers said she was "disappointed" by the government's decision.

"I'm totally disappointed," Ms Akers said.

"We have a state government not prepared to honour its word.

"The planning minister committed in parliament in March this year to assess these projects against the guidelines, and he hasn't.

"This is a significant breach of trust with rural communities."

Lemnos dairy farmer Bernie Macgill agreed.

"I'm very disappointed in it," he said.

"I feel the local residents have been totally ignored.

"When we look to the future, my opinion is, it will come a time when we are short of good farming land and the best of it will be used for basically a parking lot for a solar farm."

With the government revealing the guidelines will be active in the coming weeks, Mr Hall was critical of the decision not to wait.

"How ridiculous is that?" he said.

"They obviously think: let’s shovel these three in before the guidelines (come into effect).

"We need an inquiry into this process."

Ms Akers echoed Mr Hall's comments.

"The government need to explain why they couldn't wait a few weeks until the guidelines were adopted in the planning provisions," she said.

"If they had waited, these three projects would have been rejected as they are all on the modernised irrigation backbone.

"The government seems comfortable to roll over to the deep pockets of corporate investment with no care for farmers on the ground directly impacted."

In response, the government said it would be unfair to the independent panel members, who visited Shepparton in May 2018, to base decisions against planning controls yet to be incorporated into the scheme.

The panel approved the three sites in a report sent to the minister in July 2018.

The government said that DELWP had considered the submissions on the draft solar guidelines and considers that the issues raised, which are relevant to these permit applications, are addressed in the assessment of the planning permit applications by the panel.

Greater Shepparton City Council sent the three applications, as well as a proposal at Congupna, to Mr Wynne in February 2018 to make the final decision, saying it was difficult to make decisions when it came to solar because there were no Victorian Government guidelines in place.

Mr Wynne then approved the Congupna site — the only one not on irrigated land — in October 2018.

On the same day, he released the draft guidelines, which were finalised in late July 2019.

The three projects will create more than 600 jobs and generate enough clean energy to power more than 80,000 homes.

Combined, the three farms will consist of more than 650,000 solar panels and generate 175MW of renewable energy.