Arguments raged at the North Tolsta Community Hall on Tuesday night over controversial plans to site a corporate wind farm within a 2km buffer zone of houses.
California-based Forsa Energy have planning permission for 14 turbines at the Druim Leathann Windfarm, but are in the process of submitting an entirely new planning application to Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, in order to increase the turbine size from 126.5 metres to 140 metres.
Feelings were running high at the meeting – which had a turnout described by community council secretary Angus Murray as “the biggest attendance I’ve ever seen at any community council ever”.
The community council put the wind farm top of the agenda for their monthly public meeting after having put together an information leaflet recently on Forsa’s plans to “raise awareness”. They stressed the leaflet was “without bias” and as accurate as possible.
At the start of the meeting, chair Stuart Thomson said: “The purpose of this meeting is to establish what people think about the proposal and what might be a sensible way forward. Please let’s try to have a civil debate about this. If it degenerates into a shouting match I’ll stop the meeting.”
The first contribution was in a letter, read out by the chair, which said that if the development was to go ahead on crofting ground, that the land should be decrofted.
Donald Maciver, who opposes the development, was the first to speak from the floor, asking: “Who stands to make the most money (from the development) from owning crofts in the village?”
He added that the support for the Forsa project was based on those who have a vested interest in it going ahead.
Murdo Maciver replied that, no matter what was said, “this scheme is going to go ahead anyway”, adding: “We’re going to have it and it was supported by 100 people at the time”.
LACK OF COMMUNICATION
Fiona Macleod, on the community council, pointed out that Forsa’s new planning submission for the increased turbines was “a fresh application” – which people could choose to support or not.
Many at the meeting claimed they had not been well informed about the development, with some saying that letters about the new plans were “the first we’d heard about it” in years.
Murdo Maciver stressed the first communications had gone out in 2011 and the scheme had been advertised in the Stornoway Gazette and the local shop.
However, many said that “lack of communication has been a major problem”, while Stephan Smith, from the floor, said: “It might have been advertised but for a village this size I think it would have been prudent to advertise it to every household.”
Fiona Macleod said: “The developer has complied with the minimum statutory provision.”
Much of the discussion centred on the amount of community benefit the scheme will bring – £10million over the lifetime of the windfarm, which equates to £350,000 a year.
From 14 turbines, that is the same as North Tolsta gets from the one community-owned turbine it currently operates.
“Why do you need the 14 if you’re going to get the same as you make from that one?” asked one person, to a round of applause.
“We’ll be getting at least £10million risk-free,” said Murdo Maciver.
Someone else asked: “How much will the developers be getting?”
DOES TOLSTA NEED £10M?
From the floor, Anne Marie Henderson said the village had benefited from that one turbine but asked: “Does Tolsta actually need £10million? Wouldn’t we be happier with a wee bit less and people actually getting on together?”
Another woman questioned: “For that community benefit, is it worth this cost?”
Anne Marie Henderson asked “who is going to want to live in a village” so close to turbines, adding: “I want to see my children want to stay in the village.”
Another said: “Had I known that this was coming I would not have bought a house in this village.”
The planned turbines are all approved for siting within a supposed 2km buffer zone of houses, with most of them within 1.5km – one mile – and one as close as 1km.
Many commented on the impact this will have on people living there and some asked why the scheme could not be moved further out into the moor. The answer was because most of that ground has European designation as a Special Protected Area. “But you can build close to houses?” said one person. “We’re not specially protected?”
Murdo Maciver stressed that the scheme was needed in order to secure the interconnector, as there was no capacity on the current cable to allow any more developments.
Referring to the interconnector, councillor and Stornoway Trustee Donald Crichton, attending as an ex-officio member of the community council, said: “We need the investment of a large developer otherwise you’re going to have to take a lot of risk on to make that investment.”
Forsa Energy’s new planning application is for a 48.3MW scheme.
The maximum that can be dealt with at a local planning level is 50MW.
The new plans will soon be advertised and objections can be lodged with the planning department of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.