Electricity company AusNet Services has begun on-site surveys in its corridor of interest for the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project, and is already able to override voluntary consent to access land.
The visits are not part of the planning or construction of the high-voltage transmission lines - instead, they are for the mandatory Environmental Effects Statement that must be prepared for the state government.
The project, which could stretch from Bulgana, near Ararat, to Melbourne's western edge, is controversial - while network upgrades to connect more renewable energy to the state's grid is desperately needed, landholders and farmers are furious that it will involve easements on valuable agricultural land, with many saying the company has lost its social licence to proceed, and demanding the transmission lines are built underground.
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Near Ballarat, farmers from Waubra to Newlyn have been vocal in protesting the project for more than 18 months, with fears it could jeopardise potato farming operations on land held for generations.
A final corridor of interest for the 500kv overhead transmission line was released earlier this year - a 250kv section would follow an existing easement west from Waubra, hooking up to a terminal station proposed near Mount Prospect, then becoming 500kv for the rest of the route.
An exact route has not yet been determined, and the state government has indicated it may not require the terminal station.
AusNet has continually stated it aims to work with the community, and will investigate full and partial undergrounding as part of the EES process.
However, to complete the EES, it requires surveys along the corridor of interest, with soil and water samples and investigations into flora, fauna, and Indigenous cultural heritage sites.
Landholders can voluntarily consent to the visits, but they choose not to, under Section 93 of the Electricity Industry Act 2000, electricity companies can force access onto a property after giving the landholder notice.
For the WVTNP, giving notice is a four-step process, with letters sent to landholders at each step - the final step is a formal notice of a visit in seven days' time.
Moorabool Shire Council, where much of the line could be built, has expressed its "disappointment" the process has reached this stage.
"Although entry by electricity corporations may be gained under Section 93 of the Electricity Industry Act 2000, AusNet first sought voluntary consent from affected landholders to access private land and conduct the field surveys," council said in a statement.
"It is disappointing that the community and landowner engagement for the WVTNP has not yet developed sufficient trust between AusNet and affected landholders for them to provide voluntary consent.
"There is significant work required for the project to gain the social licence required to be a success, including a detailed and genuine investigation into underground options."
Hepburn Shire Council chief executive Bradley Thomas said in a statement council had been advised voluntary consent was being sought first.
"Council has advised AusNet that there is distrust from the community regarding their properties being accessed due to previous lack of transparency in communications, and that they as the proponent need to work on rebuilding their relationships with the community," he said.
"Council continues to be supportive of renewable energy, but it is strongly opposed to the transmission lines being above ground and the potential location of the transmission station."
Stop AusNet's Tower's Katherine Myers, a farmer from Tourello, said landholders need to understand their options, and encouraged them to seek legal advice - she noted AusNet had agreed to reimburse up to $1000 in legal fees.
"You don't want them on your land, you don't want this project to go ahead, but if you get good legal advice, you retain some control on when they come on your property," she said.
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"If you just say no, you lose that control and they just turn up when it suits them.
"Allowing access for surveys to take place is not the same as allowing access to construct the line, it in no way affects your ability to contest, or says you're going to say yes, it doesn't affect future compensation challenges.
"The issue with people shutting down, if landholders don't want to talk and negotiate with them, (timing) is a big issue - they've done a shocking job of organising these surveys, and now it's at the last minute."
According to AusNet, landholders are given plenty of notice, and if voluntary consent is given, phone calls and letters are used to make sure landholders are aware of the timing.
Before AusNet representatives and contractors arrive at a property, the scope of the proposed survey and investigation activities, details such as preferred dates and timing, access areas and entry points, any required biosecurity arrangements and other items that will help carry out the survey with minimal impact to the landholder and the property are discussed.
Surveys include "low impact activities with limited ground disturbance", "predominantly based on walking around" and "making observations".
Not all properties will require a visit, but visits are based on "desktop observations".
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"In the past two months we've worked closely with more than 108 landholders who have provided consent to conduct surveys on their land. The studies look for potential habitats for threatened species and areas of Aboriginal cultural heritage," an AusNet spokesperson said in a statement.
"Our preference is always to work with landholders to reach voluntary consent and agree protocols to help make sure our visits have the least amount of impact on their activities.
"The community will have an opportunity to review the studies and provide feedback through the EES process as the project develops."
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"In the past two months we've worked closely with more than 108 landholders who have provided consent to conduct surveys on their land. The studies look for potential habitats for threatened species and areas of Aboriginal cultural heritage.
Our preference is always to work with landholders to reach voluntary consent and agree protocols to help make sure our visits have the least amount of impact on their activities.
The community will have an opportunity to review the studies and provide feedback through the EES process as the project develops.
AusNet has not undertaken any Section 93 land visits in the Moorabool Council area to date.
As per strict procedures, in accordance with Section 93, landowners are given at least one week's notice of the visit in certified mail, plus several earlier personal visits to notify them, as well as multiple emails, letters and phone calls over more than a month prior. The landowners' lawyers are also notified.
Our preference is always to work with landholders to reach voluntary consent to access and mutually agreed access protocols. However, in circumstances where we cannot reach voluntary consent through negotiations, AusNet Services is authorised under Section 93(1) of the Electricity Industry Act 2000 (Vic) (EI Act) to access property for the purposes of surveys and investigations.
Where a landowner has provided consent for AusNet Services to access their property, landholders are given seven days' notice of the intended visit, as well as phone call the day before. Before we arrive at the property, we discuss the scope of the proposed survey and investigation activities, details such as preferred dates and timing, access areas and entry points, any required biosecurity arrangements and other items that will help us carry out the survey with minimal impact to the landholder and the property.
To avoid having to visit a property on more occasions than is necessary, a team of experts attends together, including ecologists, archaeologists and Traditional Owners, as well as the AusNet Services land team, support staff and stock agents.
The purpose of the surveys is to identify potential habitat for threatened ecological communities, flora and fauna and areas of Aboriginal cultural heritage sensitivity. With knowledge of the presence and locations of these environmental values, design can be optimised to avoid and minimize impacts where possible. These studies primarily consist of low impact activities with limited ground disturbance and are predominantly based on walking around the property and making observations. We don't need to survey every property. We are targeting areas identified through our desktop investigations that require further field investigation.
Comprehensive land studies and investigations into any potential environmental impacts are a critical part of the project's planning and assessment, and provide the public with an opportunity to review, provide feedback and participate in the process as the project develops.
As part of the planning and investigation of the project we are considering full or partial undergrounding of transmission lines, in accordance with the Environment Effects Statement requirements identified by the Minister for Planning.
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