The High Court has upheld Limerick county manager Ned Gleeson’s order overturning a decision made by county councillors last September to rezone 130 acres of land on the outskirts of Adare for residential and mixed-use development.
The ruling is not only important for the picture-postcard town of Adare - featuring old world thatched roof cottages and Tudor-style buildings - but is regarded as significant for the overall planning process in Ireland.
Mr Justice Brian McGovern said the elected representatives had “clearly failed” to abide by requirements laid down by the 2000 Planning Act in making their decision.
Two landowners, PJ Farrell and Barbara Forde, had sought to have Mr Gleeson’s order adopting a local area plan for Adare quashed, on the basis that it failed to include the rezonings of their lands - respectively, 90 acres and 40 acres at Ardshanbally.
Having entered into agreements with developers, they had applied to have the lands rezoned for residential purposes - including the provision of a neighbourhood centre and community facilities in the case of Mr Farrell and for low-density residential in the case of Ms Forde.
Submissions seeking the proposed changes were made after the draft plan had been on public display. The county manager recommended that the zoning should remain agricultural, but the councillors subsequently adopted a resolution to rezone the lands.
The Department of the Environment had advised that the rezonings would have a “significant effect on the historic built heritage of Adare if the village is to be effectively spread across the river [Maigue], either in the form of a detached suburb or a competing local centre”.
Acting on legal advice from solicitors, Leahy Partners and Garret Simons SC, a noted expert on planning law, Mr Gleeson said he was satisfied that the “purported resolution” passed by the council was invalid and the plan should be adopted without the rezonings.
The two landowners involved had offered to indemnify the councillors if they were personally surcharged for making this decision - a stratagem which Mr Simons said would “undermine the regime put in place by the Oireachtas” to discipline errant councillors.
In his ruling, Mr Justice McGovern said there appeared to have been “no meaningful discussion” at the council meeting of a report by landscape architects Nicholas de Jong Associates that formed the basis of the development strategy underpinning the local area plan.
“There appears to have been no serious discussion on the environmental impact of the proposed rezoning and the importance of keeping development within the existing town boundaries, as bordered by the river on one side” - the judge said.
He noted that a county manager had “the power to treat a resolution as invalid where the elected members have ignored the local authority’s expert advice to the effect that the development would be contrary to the proper planning and development of the area”.
In the case of Adare, the councillors had also failed to outline “any proper planning-based reason for rejecting that advice”.
Accordingly, Mr Justice McGovern said he was satisfied that the county manager was entitled to make an order rescinding the rezoning motion passed by the councillors, because it was “not a valid and effective resolution” in accordance with Section 20 (3) of the 2000 Act.
Environment Minister John Gormley is to introduce legislation shortly amending the Act to ensure that all land rezoning decisions are informed by an “evidence-based core strategy”. Thus, councillors would no longer be able to rezone land merely at the behest of its owners.