The Irish government has proposed new regulatory guidelines to limit the impact of wind farms on local communities. The proposals, announced by planning minister Simon Coveney TD and environment minister Denis Naughten on Tuesday [13 June], would see the implementation of more stringent noise limits and a related monitoring regime, as well as visual amenities relating to the distance of turbines from residential properties.

In addition, enhanced community engagement regulations will be introduced for wind developers along with the provision of community benefit measures. The guidelines have not yet been adopted, and are effectively a published set of principles that set out the framework and approach.

“There is an appetite for clarity among investors, developers and communities,” Alice Whittaker, partner at law firm Philip Lee, told inspiratia. The government is essentially setting out a preferred draft approach but is not committing to anything until after a strategic environmental assessment (SEA), which had been announced back in December [2016].

Once it begins, the SEA is likely to take up to 12 weeks, after which a final proposal for revised guidelines will be submitted. Reportedly, the aim is to have finalised and published the guidelines by Q1 2018.

New noise limits

The agreed principles include setting an absolute maximum noise limit on wind to bring regulations in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) standards. The changes would apply prospectively to new and expanding wind farms.

The issue, says Philip Lee’s Whittaker, will be over how different types of noise are monitored and assessed and how breaches are enforced. It is proposed for the first time that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will ensure local authorities can effectively enforce breaches. Alison Fanagan, consultant at A&L Goodbody, added that “the 43decibel maximum has remained the same, but what goes into that 43 decibels will change”.

Irish wind farms are currently experiencing a rising number of noise nuisance claims, and Fanagan believes the new regulations could help plaintiffs. “Even if it’s not retrospective, the recognition that other noises will be factored in that weren’t before will be supportive of their position,” she said. “This could make it more difficult to defend nuisance claims.” Despite this, neither Fanagan nor Whittaker foresee major obstacles to new developments.

“There’s nothing here that will terrify the horses,” said Fanagan, “although the noise analysis that goes into environmental reports in the planning stages will have to be more conservative, and this may well affect what is deliverable in terms of capacity.”

Other proposals

Another proposed guideline is to require a setback distance for turbines of four times their tip-height and a mandatory minimum of 500 metres from a residential area.

Previous guidelines had also indicated this, but with permissible exceptions with the consent of the landowner. It is unclear whether they will still be permitted under the revised guidelines. The setback distance could potentially affect new developments, according to Whittaker, as residential developments in Ireland are “scattered” due to zoning and planning policies.

“Different planning authorities have proposed much bigger setback distances” added Alan Roberts, partner at A&L Goodbody. “The guidelines won’t prevent local authorities from increasing the distance.” A third potential change is the requirement for a community engagement consultation prior to any formal proposal, and to provide enduring economic benefits for the communities concerned.

“That principle is well understood and accepted in industry – I’m not sure if there’s to be much further guidance,” said Roberts. Whittaker echoed this point, but added that the new guideline would make it mandatory for all projects, and that there was a “cost implication that might make it out of reach for smaller developers”.

As published in Inspiratia on June 16th 2017