COUNCILLORS in Roscommon have accused An Taisce of having an "unhealthy interest" in planning matters in the midlands county. Several councillors have expressed trenchant criticism of the environmental body which they claim is preoccupied with planning issues, particularly in the northern part of the county.
In response, the planning watchdog has described councillors' comments as "opportunistic" and says its position has been misrepresented by the local authority.
Various criticisms were levelled against An Taisce during a council debate on proposals to materially contravene the Boyle Development Plan to allow for the construction of a warehouse development on land zoned for housing. In a written submission, An Taisce advised that "an assessment should be sought on traffic and community impact" before a decision was taken on the proposal. Councillors voted unanimously in favour of rezoning the land.
"Why is An Taisce so interested in everything in Boyle?"
demanded Councillor John Cummins (Fianna Fáil).
"Every single application for the north of the county seems to attract the interest of An Taisce. They seem to want to deter people in North Roscommon from doing anything."
Mayor, Cllr Charlie Hopkins (Fine Gael) said the environmental body appeared to have "an unhealthy interest in North Roscommon." Cllr Ernie Keenan (Fine Gael) stated that instead of his planned development being criticised, the businessman in question should be commended for his efforts to "put something into Boyle."
An Taisce - "The Store House" or "Treasury" in Irish - is the National Trust for Ireland. Established in 1948, it is a prescribed body under the planning acts and the only one which is independent of the state. Local authorities are obliged to consult An Taisce on a vast array of development proposals. It has a professional staff of 17 people and a membership of over 5,000 spread among 20 local associations around the country.
In a statement issued in response to the criticism, the body pointed out that it had been invited to comment on the proposed material contravention in a letter from the planning section of Roscommon County Council delivered by registered post.
It said that last year it commented on 89 planning applications, "a mere 3.5%" of the 2,547 lodged with Roscommon County Council. "Only 12 of these submissions were with regard to planning applications in Boyle in 2006." So far this year An Taisce has commented on eight - "just over 2%" of the 546 planning applications submitted to the county council.
The environmental body accused councillors of "opportunistic remarks that misrepresent not only An Taisce and its members, locally and nationally, but also other concerned citizens. It is about time that local representatives start taking a fact based, transparent and accurate approach when dealing with and debating issues concerning the public and their wellbeing.
"Any observations made by An Taisce in and around Boyle are based primarily on appreciation for the special historic character and attractive quality of the town and its relation to the surrounding landscape. We have consistently sought to promote Boyle as a heritage and cultural tourism destination, including the need for appropriately located hotels and other tourism accommodation and facilities, combined with the maintenance and enhancement of the attractive town centre, the area around the historic Boyle Abbey and the Canal navigation, as well as Lough Key."
"I think An Taisce has been stung into issuing this statement because they're well aware of the validity of our observations, " Charlie Hopkins says. "Nobody around here can figure out what this obsession with Boyle is all about. Any proposal, particularly in relation to commercial development for the town, attracts their attention. And if the planning application is for a hotel they will definitely lodge an objection.
The town is badly in need of a good hotel. The people of Boyle are entitled to it. We had a proposal to demolish two old buildings and build a hotel in the centre of the town. An Taisce objected to what was a perfectly reasonable proposal and An Bord Pleanála upheld the objection. An Taisce is no friend of Boyle town, that's for certain."