The corrugations on the old hall at Sutton look tired. The community hall has stood on the outskirts of town since the early 1900s and in that time very little has changed. The first time I visited the hall was as a child for a school dance. I had made the drive from our rural haven to the burgeoning city of Canberra and Mum had reluctantly spent $50 on a pair of shorts for me to wear. Unfortunately the new shorts made me no more enticing to the girls at the dance and the century old wooden floorboards creaked and willed me to sit.
Just under a decade ago I visited the hall again. This time it was to marry my wife. She was willing to look past my horrible dancing and we spent the night dancing, laughing and celebrating with friends; it really was the best night of my life.
The hall has been a special place. It’s been a symbol of the community, a place of coming together, a place of celebration. Recently that has changed. The hall is no longer a place of smiling and laughter and bad dancing. It has become a war room; a meeting place for a divided community fighting against a much larger foe. It's become a familiar kind of fight playing out in community halls all across our region.
My family are sixth generation farmers, and all things going well, my children will be the seventh. I love reading the memoirs of my great grandmother who grew up on the land. She tells tales of riding to Gundaroo for school, the cranky teacher that made life difficult and how at night she would say a prayer that perhaps God could make him fall of his bike so that they could have a new teacher. She tells of going into Canberra in 1913 for the laying of the foundation stone and how in one awful week her husband and husband’s parents all died of pneumonia, leaving her with a two-year-old daughter and a large farm to manage alone, which she did.
Our farm is special. It sits amongst rolling hills and lush pasture. It’s minutes to Canberra and yet, feels like it’s miles from anywhere. In summer the sunsets over the hills to the west are glorious, and in winter we look down on a valley blanketed in fog from atop our hilltop perch. It’s not an easy life, but it’s rewarding. The drought means that the cost of feed takes away any chance of profitability this year, but the rain will come eventually, and with it the long grasses that we so desperately rely on. I remember seeing my parents' worried faces when I was younger as they would discuss such things. “We need to pray for rain” Mum would say. We’d all nod in agreement. I’ve seen their worried faces before, but never like this. This year the worry hasn’t left their face, and it’s not because of the drought.
I’ve seen their worried faces before, but never like this. This year the worry hasn’t left their face, and it’s not because of the drought.
“They want to build a solar farm on the edge of our property,” Dad said to me over the phone last year. “Their lawyers came to talk to us. They’re going around to all the farmers.” Well that’s not so bad I thought to myself. I’ve always been supportive of protecting the environment and wholly believe that as a society we need to make a shift. But as I learnt more my perception began to shift. Not about the need for renewable energy, but about me being OK with it sitting alongside our family farm, the same farm that my great grandmother had held together by herself.
The proposed Springdale development is 850 acres. For those who've been there, that’s a bit bigger than Central Park in New York City. Within two kilometres of the development the owners of 34 farms will be directly affected. For some, like us, they’ve been in the area for generations. For others, their farm is the realisation of a lifelong dream to be on the land; their life savings poured into its purchase. Land in the area is not cheap either. Its proximity to Canberra is highly desired.
The land is home to a number of endangered species and works alongside the Goorooyarroo and Mulligans Flat nature reserves to help provide a haven for the critically endangered golden sun moth and the vulnerable superb parrot.
Aside from the visual impact, the economic impact on land values and the potential threat to our local endangered species there are a number of other things that make me ask “why here?”. Our local creek runs through the middle of the proposed site. It’s flooded three times in the last decade, and such events are happening more and more frequently. Last year a large fire came through the area and, like the floods, they seem to be happening more. And then there’s the fog. Dad has been out each morning taking photos of the valley. They’re beautiful. The fog hangs in the area to the late morning. Perfect for photos, I would've thought, but not solar.
It’s winter and the old hall is a cold place to be on a Thursday evening. An older lady walks slowly through the door, reaches into her handbag and pulls out a couple of $100 notes. “I don’t really do the internet banking stuff, but wanted to help out for the brochures and such.” The recipient smiles in gratitude and the lady takes her seat in the hall. I look around at weary, defeated faces. Living on the land you anticipate the droughts, but this you don’t. A representative from the local council explains after the meeting that fights like this have been happening all across the region. Towns are divided. Some farmers are selling out, others staying put. Generational friendships are falling apart. Sometimes it’s been wind farms. More recently, it’s solar.
The NSW government has identified three suitable sites for renewable energy generation in the state. The identified sites are put against a huge range of criteria to meet. The three sites sit in remote areas of rural NSW. Areas that aren't prime grazing land, that don’t visually impact 34 neighbouring properties, that aren’t prone to flood or fire, that won’t jeopardise the conservation efforts of our local endangered species. These are areas that would benefit from any economic activity the site may bring and where the energy produced will be consumed within the state.
And yet, here we are, huddled in the cold community hall on a Thursday evening.