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Council to refer solar farm decision

Pile of newspapers wrapped in string.

Council to defer planning decision on proposed solar farm in Baringhup to Minister for Planning.

Wednesday 20 March 2019

Mount Alexander Shire Council will request the Minister for Planning determine a planning permit application for a proposed solar farm in Baringhup, as resolved at a Council Meeting last night.

Council will make the request in recognition of the proposal’s significance to the Victorian Government’s renewable energy targets, conflicts between state and local planning policies, and to enable a more efficient and accessible planning process.

“In the light of all these factors, we consider it appropriate to refer the planning application to the Minister for a decision,” said Cr Bronwen Machin, Mayor of Mount Alexander Shire.

“If the Minister agrees, this will shorten the time frame for a decision and will bring the review to here in the shire with Council requesting any public hearings be held at the Baringhup Community Hall. The fact the review will be held in the shire will ensure the community of Baringhup get a chance to have a say.”

One of the main concerns about the planning application is whether the loss of productive agricultural land for a solar farm is an acceptable planning outcome.

While the solar farm could contribute to jobs and reduce greenhouse emissions to contribute to Victoria’s energy targets, there are concerns about the impact of the development on the amenity and environment in the Baringhup district.

The development raises issues such as solar glare, visual amenity, impact on local road networks, noise, potential loss of agricultural productivity and impacts on native vegetation and biodiversity.

Council received a planning permit application (PA297/2018) for the use and development of a renewable energy facility (solar and energy storage) in Baringhup in October last year. The proposed development includes about 260,000 solar panels on a 292 hectare site on Baringhup West Road.

The estimated $195 million development has the potential to generate 75 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy. It includes plans for a utility zone with a battery storage facility, satellite construction compound, and buildings for operations and maintenance.

Council has already received 16 objections from local landholders and interested parties, one pro forma objection with about 250 signatures opposing the development, and one submission supporting the development.

“The conflict in planning policy, scale of the proposal, significance of issues raised, and links to state-wide energy and economic targets sets this application apart,” said Mayor Machin.

“We must make decisions with strong consideration to the net community benefit and sustainable development. At the same time it’s very likely that any decision we make would be subject to VCAT at a significant cost to ratepayers,” she said.

If the Minister agrees to take on the decision, an independent planning panel will be appointed review the application, and make a report and recommendation to guide the decision.

The local planning scheme aims to facilitate development of infrastructure for energy supply but lacks specific policy relating to the development of solar farms. There are precedents for Ministerial decisions on solar farm applications in the areas of Shepparton and Wangaratta.

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