Residents left in the dark over solar projects
STARING down the barrel of hundreds of millions - if not billions - of dollars of investment in solar projects across the region, the Western Downs is on the cusp of a new wave of prosperity and opportunity.
But nothing comes for free.
Despite the incredible scale of development on the horizon, residents of the Western Downs will have little recourse when it comes to being notified or objecting to projects that arrive on their doorstep.
With a 264ha 100-megawatt solar project proposed in close proximity to his home, it's an issue Chinchilla melon farmer Darryl O'Leary believes the community needs to be aware of.
As it stands, solar projects proposed outside industrial areas are code assessable under the new Western Downs Planning Scheme, adopted by the Western Downs Regional Council in March.
This means there is no public notification required - regardless of a development's size - and residents have no right to appeal once a development application is approved.
That is something MrO'Leary said needed to change.
Although he is happy with how the council and councillors listened to his concerns and he's had the opportunity to work through his issues with First Solar's proposed solar project, he still believes future projects - especially those as large as First Solar's - should be impact assessable.
An impact assessable development application legally requires a public notification period and the public have the right to appeal a decision in the Planning and Environment Court.
"I think the community needs to know where these developments are," MrO'Leary said.
"And council needs to somehow take control of it and put it in areas where it does not impact on neighbouring properties, the environment or anything else."
It wasn't always like this, though.
In the amended draft Western Downs Planning Scheme that went out for public consultation last year, "renewable energy facilities" were to be impact assessable if not located within specialised industrial areas.
In a confidential submission made by council officers to the amended draft planning scheme in December 2016, the council argued for, and accepted, a change to make "renewable energy facilities" code assessable in the final version of the planning scheme.
It should be noted that before the Western Downs Planning Scheme was adopted, four of the six previous regional planning schemes had renewable energy facilities - or public utilities as they were then termed - deemed as code assessable, with only two planning schemes requiring an impact assessment of such developments.
According to Mayor Paul McVeigh, code assessing development applications for renewable energy facilities is the "best and smoothest pathway" for developers of solar farms and other renewables, and it will encourage development in the region.
Making it easy for renewable development was essential, he said, because with the Federal Government's Renewable Energy Target to generate 33,000gigawatt hours of additional renewable energy by 2020, time was of the essence.
Cr McVeigh said if development applications took too long, developers would go elsewhere, which was why the council switched to code assessing the renewable energy facilities.
"This is one of the last opportunities we're going to see in getting major utilities and power generation within our region," he said.
"We made that decision (for code assessable renewable energy facilities) to try and make a pathway to success and get another string to the bow within our community, creating an opportunity for both jobs and wealth generation."
The mayor also noted the impact of renewable energy facilities was "very minimal compared to other major infrastructure that is impact assessable".
But Mr O'Leary said while he understood development was important, the needs of the community should also be considered.
"We can understand the need for development but just to make it easy to come to our region - is that going to be for the betterment of our community in the long term?" he asked.
Mr O'Leary said there should be a requirement for solar farms to be a minimum distance from houses, along with buffer zones around the perimeter, and any developments should not impact on waterways.
"There's also a high probability of these projects devaluing adjacent land," he said.
"Who's going to want to live next to a great big industrial electricity plant?"
When the Chinchilla News put it to the mayor that residents had a right to know what was going on in their own backyard and should be made aware of any large solar projects proposed near their homes, he said it was up to the development applicants to initiate a conversation with residents.
"Council certainly encourages applicants to have discussions with residents neighbouring their proposed developments," CrMcVeigh said.