By Kirra Grimes
THE debate over a wind turbine about to go up in a residential area on Phillip Island has revealed an urgent need to update planning policies to keep up with emerging technologies, with even the proponent admitting as much.
Electrical contractor and solar installer Robert McKittrick, of Mount Waverley, is pushing ahead with plans to erect a 10.8 metre tall wind turbine in the backyard of his Surf Beach holiday home, with the aim of relocating there permanently once he’s got it fully powered by renewable energy, including several dozen solar panels already installed on the roof.
He says he’s well within his rights to do so, with nothing in the state’s planning and building regulations to stop him, and Bass Coast Shire Council confirming as much when he first approached him with his plans five years ago.
Their recent interventions on behalf of protesting neighbours have simply come too late, Mr McKittrick says – with close to $50,000 already spent on the project, there’s no chance he’ll turn back now without some form of compensation for “forgoing [his] rights”.
“Council’s ruled that I’m allowed to do it,” he told the Sentinel-Times.
“There wasn’t even a suggestion they weren’t happy at the time.
“The adverse reaction people are having to me now… Maybe I’m not the problem, maybe the problem is the rules they have in place.
“I’m happy to follow the rules, but that’s what’s in place and they can’t change it now,” he said.
Confident he’s done his “due diligence” with regards to installing a safe, properly engineered structure, including two years of night school gain a qualification in wind energy conversion systems, Mr McKittrick says neighbours’ objections on the basis of noise and other environmental impacts simply don’t stack up.
The turbine will be no louder than a 4kW air conditioning unit, he says, and shearwater birds are unlikely to be affected as they’re rarely seen as far inland as the Dixon Street property.
A recent request by council CEO Ali Wastie to put construction on hold for a few weeks while council officers investigate what might be done about the “high level of community concern,” will not derail his original schedule, he says.
In fact, the level of flak he’s copped since starting construction earlier this month, including having profanities yelled at him in the street, having the police called to the property on false reports of breaching COVID restrictions, and having former friends communicate with him exclusively through a solicitor, has only strengthened his resolve.
“I’m doing this because we all need to be responsible and reduce our carbon footprint,” he said.
“I’ve followed the rules; I asked the right questions at the right time way back when; I’ve spent a lot of money and time; and I’m behaving in what I believe to be a neighbourly manner.
“No one’s come to me said ‘what can we do to get you to not put it up?’ No one’s offered a compromise or solution. They’ve just abused and insulted me – why would I stop, when people are acting the way they are?”
Opponents like Ray Carson say they have approached Mr McKittrick in an attempt to reason with him, but “he won’t be persuaded by anyone because he thinks he’s within the law”.
They’re frustrated council seems to be “waiting on the state government to take them by the hand and tell them what to do” instead of stepping up to stop the “monstrosity” coming to completion.
“Other councils wouldn’t let this happen, but Bass Coast is too scared he’ll take them to court over it,” Mr Carson said.
“It’s stupid. You know your own territory and you know what’s appropriate – this is clearly not appropriate for Phillip Island,” he said.
No easy answers
Totally Renewable Phillip Island coordinator Bhavani Rooks said she could see merit in both sides of the debate, and understood why it was tough call for council in the absence of clear guidance from the state government.
“On one hand, of course we want to encourage as much renewable energy as possible; but on the other hand, we want to do it in the right way,” she said.
“I’m on five acres, so I think it sounds like a great idea, but is it appropriate for a suburban area? An 11 metre thing in somebody’s backyard?
“I can’t decide. I know the locals don’t want it there. And if I was a neighbour, I’d probably agree, especially with the shearwaters close by.
“But on the other hand, there’s studies that say cats kill more birds than wind turbines.”
Ms Rooks said solar was TRPI’s preferred renewable energy source for the Island, as large scale wind power may present “issues” for wildlife including migratory birds.
But she stressed that more investigation was needed in this area, including an environmental impact study, which the volunteer group currently lacked the funds to carry out.
She also questioned whether environmental concerns were merely being used to give more traction to what was essentially a “neighbours’ dispute”.
“At the moment, I’ve got more questions than answers,” she said.
“Has the environment just got caught up in this? Or is it a concern that you’ve got migratory birds nesting within 100 metres? Shearwaters nest all way along those sand dunes; do they nest four streets back [from the beach]? Probably not. But I can’t say one way or the other.
“Are we in a windy spot, and should we be capturing that wind? Probably, but we’ve got to do it in a way that’s safe for everyone.
“I have to say I was shocked when I found out about it not needing a permit – these days you need a permit for everything!”
Council’s stance has been that it doesn’t have the power to stop construction of the turbine under the state’s current planning or building provisions – which don’t require permit approval for freestanding structures less than 11 metres in height – but is endeavouring to change that to prevent similar scenarios arising in the future.
Ms Wastie told the September council meeting Mayor Cr Brett Tessari had recently raised the issue with the Minister for Local Government Shaun Leane “to see if he has any powers at his disposal to enable him to intervene on behalf of the community”.
Council was still waiting for a response to an earlier request for changes to the planning scheme to allow council oversight of domestic wind turbines, she said.
The Minister was contacted for comment.