THE PROMOTERS of Pol an Ionain cave in north Clare, which contains reputedly the largest free-hanging stalactite in the world, yesterday secured planning permission for a visitor centre at the site.
An Bord Pleanála yesterday gave the plan the go-ahead in the face of opposition from An Taisce, the Pol an Ionain Action Group and the nearby rival cave, Ailwee Cave.
Three years ago, the cave owners, John and Helen Browne, opened the cave to allow the public to view the 23ft-long stalactite after a 16-year long planning battle. However, the permission by An Bord Pleanála precluded any visitor centre and the public has been bused to the cave site through a park-and-ride system.
The Brownes, however, earlier this year, lodged plans for the visitor centre and a car-park for 30 cars after claiming that the enterprise is not viable into the future by relying on a park-and-ride system.
Clare County Council gave the proposal the go-ahead. However, in the appeals lodged, the opponents claimed the Brownes failed to justify the development and that the proposal may affect the wellbeing and future growth of the Great Stal.
However, the inspector in the case ruled that the possibility of an impact on the physical integrity of the Great Stal would not be significant, pointing out that the over-ground proposal is located 150 metres from the stalactite.
In its order, the appeals board concluded that the development would not pose a risk to the Great Stal, would not give rise to water pollution and would not prejudice public health.
The board ruled that visitor numbers are not to exceed 55,000 visitors per annum.
Helen Browne said yesterday that she was “very happy” with the ruling. She confirmed that work would start on the visitor centre in the next number of months and be ready for the 2010 summer season. Ms Browne said the work would cost between €400,000 and €500,000. The centre is to contain an exhibition area, a shop, cafe and toilets.
An Taisce’s heritage officer, Ian Lumley, has lodged a complaint with the Environment Directorate of the European Commission to overturn the An Bord Pleanála decision.