A proposed wind farm at Garvoc has triggered a passionate debate about whether wind energy and intensive agriculture can coexist in the same area.
About 60 Garvoc residents staged a community meeting on September 4 to share concerns about the effects Swansons Lane Wind Farm might have on their farming businesses.
The town of roughly 250 people sits on the eastern edge of Moyne Shire but squarely in the middle of Victoria's richest agricultural land as well as its wind energy sweet spot.
To the people of Garvoc, it's an embarrassment of riches. They worry exploiting the wind resource will stunt the local farms.
Dairy farmer Joseph Conheady has led the charge for the community. He is in the midst of trying to develop his own farming operation by building worker housing on his property, which is next door to the proposed wind farm.
Because his proposed worker accommodation is within one kilometre of the wind farm, Mr Conheady has to apply to Moyne Shire Council for a permit, and the proximity to the wind farm means there's no guarantee the council will give him the green light.
If there wasn't a wind farm proposed next door, he wouldn't even have to apply for a permit. Mr Conheady said the issue demonstrated a conflict in the government's policy when it came to encouraging intensive agriculture as well as renewable energy development.
"There is a clear conflict between our existing primary industry and district which is acknowledged as in need of more workers to drive it forward... (and) on the other hand, the encroaching industry needs people not to be here in close proximity to projects," Mr Conheady said.
"This not only applies to existing housing and business but stands in the way of decades of future development in that area if approved."
RE Future, the developer behind the Swansons Lane project, disputed this view, saying there were countless examples across the world, and even in south-west Victoria, where wind farms and agriculture co-existed with no ill effects.
The apparent policy contradiction stems from two amendments made to the Victoria Planning Provisions in late 2021.
The first amendment, VC202, created the concept of 'rural worker accommodation' in the farming zone and introduced a permit exemption for accommodation housing up to 10 workers.
In its explanatory report for the amendment, the government said the new rural worker accommodation category would be "integral to agricultural activity and production" and ensure "agricultural land is managed sustainably" by making it easier for farming businesses to house their employees.
The VC202 amendment came into effect on October 12, 2021. The next day, on October 13, another amendment, VC212, came into force.
This second amendment made it mandatory for anyone with land within a kilometre of a wind farm, or proposed wind farm, who wanted to use that land for rural worker accommodation, to get a permit.
In the explanatory report for VC212 the government said the amendment "supports the ongoing operation of wind energy facilities and increases amenity protections for nearby accommodation uses".
Since VC212 came into effect the day after VC202 and refers explicitly to rural worker accommodation, it was clearly brought it in to overrule the permit exemption. But the government also made it clear it didn't think there was a conflict between the two land uses.
"Wind farms have a limited footprint on agricultural land and operations, which is why both can co-exist when planned properly," a government spokesperson said.
The explanatory report for VC212 said its purpose was "ensuring accommodation buildings are appropriately located and designed to avoid adverse amenity impacts arising from the operation of a nearby wind energy facility".
It was created, the government said, to ensure proper scrutiny was given to any accommodation proposed close to wind farms. It didn't mean accommodation couldn't be built within a kilometre of a wind farm, just that it would need "a full planning assessment" and permit.
RE Future project manager Severin Staalesen said the wind farm developer didn't have any problem with Mr Conheady wanting to build his worker accommodation close to the wind farm.
"We have no objection to neighbours of any of our wind farm projects building a dwelling or farm worker accommodation in the vicinity," Mr Staalesen said.
But he said the proximity of the wind farm needed to be taken into account by the council if it decided to grant a permit for the housing.
"RE Future believes in fair and orderly land use planning and seeks only to ensure that the planning application in question is assessed against the requirements of the planning framework," he said.
Mr Conheady said he didn't understand why the government wasn't pushing wind farm development in more sparsely populated farming areas where neighbours would be less affected by a 1km buffer.
"What we have is an amazingly productive industry and skill base in this tiny but key region," he said.
"We're saying that it is something worth protecting."
But Mr Staalesen strongly disagreed with the suggestion wind farms relied on people not living or working in the vicinity, or that they stood in the way of intensive agricultural development.
"We know from experience both here and overseas that wind farms are entirely compatible with farming. For example, we know that wind farms have no impact on grazing, no impact on intensive chicken and pig farms, no impact on crops, and little to no impact on both surface water and groundwater," Mr Staalesen said.
"The fact is that this project is located in the farming zone, and that the farming zone is dedicated to land uses that are, at times, noisy, smelly, and dusty.
"Frankly, it just doesn't stand to reason that wind farms stymie agricultural development. Just look at the two operating wind farms located south of this project at Timboon West and Cooriemungle and you'll see they've had no detrimental effect on the dairy farms that surround them."
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