AusNet has promised to continue listening to the community as it narrows down the corridors of interest for the massive Western Victoria Transmission Network Project, but the latest update has not eased concerns for many residents.
Councils have condemned the lack of notice and consultation on the latest development, which was released Wednesday morning, while some community members remain staunchly opposed.
The project will connect new renewable energy generators at Bulgana, near Ararat, to the rest of the grid via a high-voltage transmission line to Sydenham on Melbourne's western outskirts.
AusNet, the company contracted to design and build the powerlines, is investigating new 500 kilovolt and 220kv lines, as well as a new terminal station north of Ballarat.
The area of interest, first released last year, covered a vast region between the two points, sparking immediate community outrage over concerns the powerlines would affect highly-productive farmland, visual amenity, and land value.
This latest map narrows the area to some more specific suggested routes, including stretches to the south of Bacchus Marsh as well as to the north past Coimadai.
However, a large area to be investigated remains north of Ballarat, east of Creswick, which is where dozens of generational potato farmers are.
Major state and national parks and forests are avoided, including to the east of Ballan and south of Creswick.
A single corridor for the powerline route is expected by mid-year.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? HAVE YOUR SAY BELOW
AusNet's new director for the project, Stephanie McGregor, urged residents and stakeholders to nominate for the community consultation groups, regardless of whether where they live is covered by the narrowed area of interest.
"There's going to be three community consultation groups - one in the central area, one in the east, and one in the west," she said.
"We're not pre-judging the agenda for those groups, the nominated and selected individuals on those committees will be the members, our project team will be a standing attendee, local government will have a standing attendee position offered.
"It's an opportunity for us to share information about the project as it develops, test some ideas, get their feedback, then discuss with them what they want to see on the agenda moving forward."
While the meetings will be closed, all agendas and minutes will be published, she added.
There will be more field work and investigative studies conducted as well, as part of development work and for the Environmental Effects Statement process.
"I wouldn't want landowners to assume that just because we've engaged with certain landowners in order to get access for surveys - and it really is just for surveys and investigations - that that in any way preempts where we're going to end up in the middle of the year for the single corridor," she said.
"I understand there was that anxiety last year, and we've tried to be very mindful about how we've structured that engagement process going forward so we can provide as much clarity as possible, and there's a balance, different parts of the community want different types of information, respond to different types of information in different ways.
"For individual landowners who've got concerns, I'd encourage them to reach out to our team directly
"I want to emphasise to the community, there is ample opportunity for consultation, we are still in development, consultation with us and through the EES process."
The proposed corridors run the length of Moorabool Shire, and mayor Tom Sullivan said a "large number of people" will be affected.
"It seems they've struck upon two broad corridors through Moorabool, one to the south and one to the north, which will upset a lot of people, clearly," he said.
"We don't really know where things are going to go, it's still up in the air.
"It's causing a lot of mental anguish amongst people because of the uncertainty - it's causing people distress."
He said he wanted to see the community consultation group's terms of reference for more clarification.
"I've been around long enough to know there's community consultation and there's community consultation - it depends on how genuine it is, is it just to get out info or will they take on board what people say," he said.
"If it's just telling people what's happening, that's not consultation."
Moorabool Shire Council will continue to push for the powerlines to be built underground, having already commissioned and released an independent feasibility study.
"Council was always hopeful that (undergrounding) would be re-looked at," Cr Sullivan said.
"It is a feasible option, we believe, and one that should be pursued more vigorously, rather than adopt an old technology.
"Underground is more expensive, but if you look at the whole of life costs and the impacts on people not just immediately affected but right across the shier, it's significant and going to blight the landscape."
Ms McGregor said undergrounding is now in the scope of the EES process.
"The project was originally scoped as overhead, that's still what we're developing at the moment, but we have to engage with that EES process legitimately, and it includes within its scoping requirements undergrounding, so we're expecting to address that," she said.
"I acknowledge the Moorabool study, and its comments on the economic cost - that's a significant cost, none of these solutions are necessarily cheap for Victorian consumers, overground sign comes with cost, undergrounding comes with cost, and both of them come with their own environmental and technical considerations.
"We'll engage with that process, and see where we end up, but the work we're doing technically will still be oriented towards overhead."
In a statement, council chief executive Derek Madden said council would also lobby for an interactive map for landowners to see whether they are covered in the new corridors.
"There is understandably a lot of angst in our community about this project, especially from landowners closest to the proposed route, and we will continue to advocate for these people and continue to push for an underground option to be considered," he said.
The media release continued council recently commissioned an independent report that confirmed that the process undertaken by AEMO to select a project option only took into account the direct electricity market benefit and did not take into account any local or non-market impacts, such as impacts to people's properties or livelihoods.
"This is not acceptable. The impact to people must be taken into account when determining the best outcome," Mr Madden said.
Hepburn Shire Council posted a statement online, noting its disappointment with the announcement and urging residents to contact AusNet directly.
"Council was given little notice of this release and we are disappointed by this action by Ausnet Mondo," it states.
"Council is continuing to seek improved community consultation from Ausnet Mondo with the community, and in accordance with the decision of the September Council meeting will continue to represent the interests of our community.
"It is important to remember that this is not a Council project and our role is to advocate on behalf of our community."
On the ground, residents are still asking questions.
Nathan Lidgett is a farmer near Myrniong and part of the Moorabool and Central Highlands Power Alliance, a group of residents opposing the project.
"We had an inkling of what was going on due to our town hall being booked for a pop-up session in the next couple of weeks," he said.
"Gutted would be the easiest way to put it, on the sense the proposed line originally set is the same new proposed line.
"I look at it from a community sense to say it's a system that has huge ramifications for agriculture, the environment, and tourist industry in the way they're proposing to do this network, and continue with old technology - we'll have to put up with that and change the whole dynamic of communities throughout the region."
IN THE NEWS
Mr Lidgett accused AusNet of not taking community views into account during the project so far, and cast doubt on the new community consultation groups having an effect on the direction of the final routes.
"You've got to put your hand up, but from previous experience it'll go on deaf ears anyway," he said.
"We need to be on it, but from previous experience, and the way their community consultation has gone - they've got total disregard for the community out here in the central west."
To get in touch with AusNet, phone 9021 0674 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on the project, including a bigger version of the map and how to nominate for the community reference group, is available online at westvictnp.com.au.
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