A 1.4 megawatt hydro-electric project at the Slug of Auchrannie, in the heart of the Den of Airlie nature reserve, has been recommended for approval by Angus councillors.
The reserve is home to vulnerable plants and animals and unique geological features, which protesters claim could be irreversibly damaged.
The scheme will affect part of what the British Lichen Society (BLS) describe as the “world headquarters” for the rare river jelly lichen and could threaten internationally important populations of the species.
The Slug is considered an area of high natural beauty, with cascading waterfalls, wooded gorges and interesting geological formations.
It is a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) and sits in the River Tay special area of conservation.
The development is joint venture between Airlie Castle Estate and the John Hogg Group on land owned by David, Lord Ogilvy.
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It includes include a 4m-high tunnel stretching some 200m and a partially underground turbine house on the River Isla’s north bank.
A pipe of nearly 2m wide and rails for maintenance bogeys will be installed for the duration of building works.
Concerns were previously raised by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) but it is understood recent amendments to the plan have satisfied all consultees.
A number of individual objections, mainly related to possible damage to rare and vulnerable flora and fauna, were also submitted to Angus Council.
However, members of the council’s development standards committee voted to approve the plans.
“We are very mindful of the importance of this site and my brief is to deliver a viable scheme with the best environmental option,” said project spokesman David Brown.
“We understand the sensitivity of the site and we have a robust mitigation strategy in place.”
He said the total cost of the development will be around £5 million, with contracting costs such as local workers accounting for almost £3 million.
An environmental report for the council suggests less than two thirds of the local population of river jelly lichen will be affected by the scheme.
But a BSL representative told the meeting the group remained opposed to the project, despite several redesigns to minimise possible impacts on the rare species.
Arbroath councillor David Fairweather led opposition to the scheme, saying the claimed saving of 111,250 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions - equivalent to taking 312 cars off the road for the lifetime of the project - was “not very much”.
“I am not happy about this at all,” he added.
“This is an SSSI, and whether it is a minimal impact or not it is going to destroy wildlife and plants in that area.
“I am not against progress but I think this committee should give these areas the highest possible protection.”
Councillor Bill Bowles said: “As custodians of our environment we’ve got to be very, very careful about how we leave it for future generations.
“If a site is deemed a SSSI that’s for a reason, and I think that means it should be left alone.”
Committee convener Rob Murray backed the development. He said: “I believe the environmental impacts are not unacceptable, mitigation procedures are in place and the river jelly lichen will be protected.
“There will not be a huge impact on wildlife, either in the short-term or the long-term.”
Another councillor described the design as a “superb piece of engineering”.
Montrose councillor Bill Duff said: “The visual impacts are pretty minimal.
“I think it is a superb piece of engineering and the developers should be commended for pulling this together.”
The developers say cash generated from power sold to the national grid and feed-in tariffs will be pumped back into Den of Airlie to protect the natural environment.
A campaigner who rallied 100 people to sign a petition against the proposal claims the scheme will provide no more reward than a single wind turbine — and at huge risk.
Stewart Roberts argues that insufficient information has been put forward about the potential impact of earthworks during construction.
He fears ancient rocks on the Highland fault line could collapse as a result.
Aberdeenshire Council’s archaeology service has advised that a “watching brief” condition should be imposed during any excavation works.