A WIND farm spanning an area larger than Inverness is a step closer to being given the go ahead after Highland Council gave its backing to the scheme.
It is now for the Scottish Government to decide whether to grant planning permission to Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) for the 67-turbine farm at Stronelairg on the Garrogie Estate, near Fort Augustus. It would be the biggest wind farms in the Highlands if approved.
Councillors in Inverness decided to back the plans today, despite more than 130 representations against the scheme.
Earlier they visited the site, which involved a bus and landrover trip.
Aird and Loch Ness councillor Margaret Davidson supported the plans, saying few local residents were hostile to the scheme because the turbines will not be visible from their homes.
However, she said she had serious concern about the impact on traffic.
"The only objections [from locals] were about the roads — for every one of these turbines there will be six abnormal [lorry] loads," she said. "There is no getting away from it, the impact of traffic going through Fort Augustus is going to be enormous."
However, Badenoch and Streathspey councillors Dave Fallows and Bill Lobban both opposed the development because of the detrimental impact on the rugged landscape and the absence of a national wild land policy.
Councillors voted 11 to three in favour of the plans.
A small protest was held outside Highland Council headquarters in Inverness ahead of the meeting.
Among the objectors was 71-year-old Michael Waldron, whose family have run the Killin Estate since 1946.
Mr Waldron visits Killin Lodge every year and says the turbines will be a "great eyesore" and is concerned construction could threaten a rare species of fish in the River Killin and Loch Killin.
"The lodge is about a quarter-of-a-mile away from Stronelairg and is situated in a flood valley," he said. "If the wind farm is built then it would push the peat down into the water and threaten the Killin char which has been there since the Ice Age."
David Baldwin, the council’s planning officer, said a "buffer zone" had been included in the plans to alleviate any potential problems from peat slide.
Mr Waldron, who lives in Devon but travelled up to protest, waved a placard outside Highland Council headquarters with his son Stephen (45) and 14-year-old grandson Callum after being barred from protesting during the site visit.
There is widespread concern about the loss of wild land in the Loch Ness area and the impact this could have on tourism and the environment.
Stronelairg is just one of six built or planned wind farms on the west side of Loch Ness and community leaders in Fort Augustus and Glenmoriston have already said they fear being surrounded and want a study to be carried out to assess the cumulative impact.
Helen McDade, head of policy for the John Muir Trust, Scotland’s wild land charity, described Loch Ness as a tourist hot spot and said the potential loss of wild land in the area was very concerning from a tourism but also environmental point of view.
"Although Stronelairg won’t be visible from the main road, once people stop and go to their bed and breakfasts and then out into the hills for a walk, or drive on the minor roads, it is going to have a massive impact," she said. "There is no doubt it would impact on a significant amount of the population and should be refused. It is a huge development — the footprint is about the size of Inverness."
She cited a recent survey by YouGov which found 40 per cent of people want wild land protection. The Scottish Government is currently reviewing its planning policy and looks set to move towards enhanced protection of these areas.
SNH is creating a map of areas in Scotland with wild land characteristics, such as
remoteness, and it is thought future planning guidance will identify specific wild land areas and give them protection from wind farm development except in special cases.
Stronelairg has already been described by SNH as an area of wild land importance and the agency has objected to the plans. It is also concerned about the impact on the nearby peatland, which acts as a store for carbon dioxide.
The Cairngorm National Park Authority has also objected, insisting the landscape and visual impact along the edge of the park would be "significant, adverse, and in some locations, overwhelming," while the Mountaineering Council for Scotland thinks it would "fatally damage" the landscape.
Highland wind farm campaigner Lynsey Ward believes the creation of the Beauly to Denny power line will only act as a magnet for more wind farms in the Loch Ness area.
"I run a bed and breakfast and people come for the area’s unspoilt natural landscape," said Mrs Ward, who lives near Kilmorack. "People want that sense of wilderness."
Existing and proposed wind farms in the Loch Ness area:
* The 20-turbine Millennium wind farm was opened by Falck Renewables in 2009 in the hills north of Invergarry and southwest of Invermoriston and Fort Augustus.
* In November, RidgeWind Ltd was given approval for a 25-turbine Beinneun wind farm to the west of Invergarry.
* A decision is expected from the government soon on plans by Scottish and Southern Energy for a 36-turbine farm at Bhlaraidh, Glenmoriston.
* A 20-turbine wind farm is planned for the Dell Estate, Whitebridge.
* E.ON unveiled plans in January for a 36-turbine development to the north west of Fort Augustus.
* Druim Ba Sustainable Energy is awaiting a decision on its plans for 23 turbines between Kiltarlity and Drumnadrochit.