16 May 2019

Cumulative impact grounds an increasing challenge for proponents of large-scale wind farms in NSW

By Claire Smith, Emma Whitney and Jessica Lighton

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment's decision highlights the increasing significance of a proposed project's impact to visual amenity, particularly its cumulative visual impact.

As renewable projects increase, so do planning objections, with visual and noise amenity as the two most commonly cited impacts raised by objectors. The NSW Wind Energy Guideline (2016) acknowledges that visual impact is an assessment criterion particularly relevant to wind energy developments, noting that the height, scale and mechanical character of wind turbines creates an unavoidable level of visibility and contrast with the natural environments in which they are situated. Further, multiple wind energy projects in close proximity can cause cumulative impacts on a particular landscape and people's enjoyment.

Under the Framework, consent authorities must consider the acceptability of visual impacts on landscape values and the amenity of landholders and communities, as well as the adequacy of measures in development proposals to avoid, reduce or manage these impacts. Those impacts are assessed in accordance with the NSW Wind Energy: Visual Assessment Bulletin (2016) which covers appropriate site-selection and environmental assessment.

How all of this is playing out in practice is becoming clearer, with cumulative impacts playing a major role in the NSW Government's recommendation that a large-scale wind farm in the Southern Highlands be refused on the grounds that the location was fundamentally not suitable because of the cumulative visual and landscape impacts of multiple wind turbines in the locality. 

The cumulative impacts of another wind farm in Crookwell

Crookwell, a town in the Southern Highlands, and its surrounds are home to five wind farms, which between them have 195 turbines. Under the Crookwell 3 wind farm proposal, 23 turbines up to 157 metres in height, with a capacity of up to 96MW, would be constructed around five km from the town in two clusters either side of the existing 32-turbine Crookwell 2 Wind Farm which is operated by the same proponent, Crookwell Development Pty Ltd (CDPL) (a subsidiary of Global Power Generation Pty Ltd). Seventeen of the proposed 23 turbines would be less than 2.1 km from residences, with some as close as 1.1 km.

The NSW Department of Planning and Environment recommended that the State significant development application for the Project be refused because of its significant cumulative visual impacts on the surrounding landscape and residents.

The application has now be referred to the Independent Planning Commission (IPC) for final determination – the second time the Project has been sent to the IPC. In 2015, the Department sent an earlier version of the Project (which proposed 29 turbines) to the IPC, recommending that approval be granted. However, the IPC expressed concerns about the Project and sent it back to the Department. This triggered CDPL to amend the proposal (including reducing the number of turbines to 23) which it resubmitted to the Department for assessment. 

Despite this reduction in number the Department found the amended Project unacceptable because:

  • the Project would result in unacceptable direct and cumulative visual impacts on residences, public viewpoints and the surrounding landscape;
  • the Project would result in unacceptable impacts on the landscape character and significant landscape features;
  • the majority of submissions from residences in the local area object to the Project and Upper Lachlan Shire Council maintains residual concerns about the impacts of the Project;
  • the Project is not consistent with the current land use "environmental management" zoning provisions; and
  • the Project is not in the public interest.

In assessing the public interest, the Department concluded the potential impacts of the proposed wind farm outweigh its predicted benefits. While the Department acknowledged the amendments made to the proposal to reduce impacts, and that CDPL had reached an agreement with multiple landowners, it considered the local landscape currently has a limited capacity to absorb further changes from wind farm development, and the specific location and scale of the project would result in material impacts on local landscape values and features.

Handling the visual impacts of future wind farm proposals

This is not the first time the Department has rejected a large-scale wind farm proposal. The proposed Jupiter Wind Farm located in Tarago in the Southern Tablelands was recommended for refusal by the Department twice (in October 2015 and February 2018) on grounds that the proposal would have unacceptable visual impacts on the surrounding landscape. The October 2015 refusal also cited a failure by the proponents to adequately address the noise impacts and properly consult with the local community. The Jupiter project originally included 100 turbines with a capacity of up to 350MW but was decreased to 54 turbines following initial discussions with the Department. In its reasons for refusal, the Department stated that the proposal was inconsistent with local land use "environmental management" zoning provisions and the site was fundamentally unsuitable for the project. The proposal was referred to the IPC for determination following the Department's February 2018 recommendation but the application was withdrawn in March 2018.

There are clear similarities between both the proposed Jupiter and Crookwell 3 wind farms as well as the reasons cited by the Department for its refusal in each case despite the fact the Crookwell 3 project is approximately half the scale of the revised Jupiter proposal. These similarities indicate impacts on visual amenity, especially when combined with community resistance and cumulative impacts of existing projects, will continue to feature more prominently within the Department's assessment of any proposed wind farm project.

The Department's decision highlights the increasing significance placed on the impact to visual amenity by a proposed project, particularly in locations with existing major wind farm projects, where the cumulative visual impact may become a prominent consideration. Proponents should therefore give due consideration to strategies or designs to reduce the impact of a proposed project on the visual amenity of the surrounding landscape, as well as clearly and effectively consulting with the local community to address concerns.

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Clayton Utz communications are intended to provide commentary and general information. They should not be relied upon as legal advice. Formal legal advice should be sought in particular transactions or on matters of interest arising from this communication. Persons listed may not be admitted in all States and Territories.