Wind farm developers are offering tens of thousands of dollars in one-off and annual payments to neighbouring properties in a new bid to silence objectors and help break the funding drought for renewable energy investments.
Developers claim the offers are an attempt to combat jealousy between neighbours over personal cash benefits but affected residents claim it is an offer to “share and shut up”.
Landowners who accept the lengthy contracts must agree to allow the wind farm projects to exceed their permit conditions on noise levels, shadow flicker and other potential impacts.
Neighbours must give up their rights to make formal objections to wind farm company planning applications and agree not to talk to the media about the contracts without the written permission of the wind-farm company.
WestWind has confirmed it is offering “neighbour agreements” to residents near its Moorabool Wind Farm in Victoria. The company denies the contracts are an attempt to gag complaints.
But landowners who have been offered upfront payments of $25,000 and $8000 a year say they have been told to keep the existence of the contract and its details secret.
Sue Dean said she had been given to the end of this month to sign an agreement with WestWind, but had decided to blow the whistle instead.
“No amount of money would make me want to sign that agreement,” she said. “That agreement is like stealing your property from under your nose.”
Ms Dean moved into her double-glazed property with its own renewable energy system about nine years ago. But she now wants to leave the property, half-way between Ballarat and Bacchus Marsh, because of the wind farm development that will put a turbine within 1km of her house.
If a property owner signs a neighbourhood agreement they will not be able to sell their property unless the purchaser also agrees to accept the conditions.
“You are signing away all of your rights,” Ms Dean said. “If you sign this agreement you will not be able to complain at all about them exceeding any limits, nothing under the Health Act, the Planning Act, you can’t write objection letters.
“You are signing away an awful lot of rights and it allows them to exceed every permit condition that they have.”
WestWind managing director Tobi Geiger said the company was frustrated by the level of objections to its $600 million project, which is expected to generate more than 843,588 MWh of electricity a year.
“They treat us like we are proposing a nuclear power station in their back yard,” Mr Geiger said. He said the agreements were seen as a way of overcoming perceived jealousy between landowners who received a direct benefit from turbines and those who did not.
“We have been criticised as an industry and a company about how we spread the benefits of our projects,” Mr Geiger said. “We have always had a community fund that spent money in the community, but immediate neighbours have complained that is not enough. Often they will not see the benefit because they are not active community members.”
Mr Geiger said the amount of money offered to neighbours would depend on how close they were to the wind farm and the amount of disruption they could expect. Offers are expected to be made to residents up to 2km from the wind turbines.