200 MW solar project nipped in the bud as VCAT hands down decision

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After being rejected by the Corangamite Shire Council amid strong opposition from local farmers, the 200 MW Bookaar Solar Farm was denied a planning permit by Victoria’s planning arbitrator. In handing down its decision, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) pointed to a lack of information around drainage and bushfire management in the application submitted.

The Bookaar solar farm – a joint project of solar developer Infinergy Pacific and landowners, former Corangamite MP Stewart McArthur and family – was proposed to feature up to 700,000 solar panels, inverters, a substation and battery storage across a 558 hectare site. The solar development was to be located 10 kilometres north-west of Camperdown.

The $150 million solar development was faced with strong local opposition from the onset. It received only five submissions in support and 81 objections for various reasons, including size, visual impact and loss of agricultural land. At the time of the council vote last September, Corangamite Shire Councillor Neil Trotter said the key issue that councillors had rallied behind was the loss of agricultural land, but also underlined that it had been “lineball call” in terms of planning.

In its report, VCAT emphasised there was strong state planning policy support for renewable energy facilities, and that the applicant could consider a fresh proposal to address all concerns in the findings.

Solar guidelines

Last year, Corangamite Shire councillors raised concerns about a lack of guidance from the State Government for an assessment of solar farms in Victoria. Namely, while wind farms have to be approved by the state planning minister, solar farm approval falls to local government.

Previously, the same issue was put in the limelight when Greater Shepparton City Council declared itself ill-equipped to approve solar developments in its shire. As a result, four solar farm permit applications were called in by the state planning minister, amid opposition from local farmers to solar developments on prime agricultural land.

The much-awaited solar farm guidelines were delivered by the Victorian Government last month to outline the assessment and development process for large-scale solar projects. “The guidelines will help to ensure community consultation is part of the process from an early stage, so local residents are engaged, informed and have an opportunity to provide input before the planning permit is lodged,” Minister for Planning, Lily D’Ambrosio said.

The new set of guidelines attempts to ensure new solar energy facilities are built in the right locations, meaning they are easily accessible to the electricity transmission network; they avoid or minimise impacts on their local environments; and that issues such as impacts on productive agricultural areas and irrigated areas or impacts on sensitive uses within their proximity are considered.