Saturday 10 November 2007

Councils accused of 'unjustified zonings'

An Bord Pleanala has accused some local authorities of engaging in "unjustifiable zoning", particularly by rezoning excessively large tracts of rural land outside small towns and villages.

Board chairman John O'Connor warned that just because councillors have given the green light for building on a piece of land, it does not mean that the board will approve the development.

He added that it would not be deterred from refusing permission simply because the local authority could be at risk of having to pay millions of euro in compensation to developers.

Local authorities also came in for criticism for granting permission for high-rise developments on an "ad hoc basis" and without fully debating the issue.

The lack of a clear policy was leading to tension between developers and their architects on one side and councillors who were reflecting local opposition on the other. Planners and local authority managers were being caught in the middle, said Mr O'Connor.

He also expressed concern about the effect the rising number of septic tanks was having on water quality in the countryside. Up to 17,000 houses are being built in rural areas each year and this is leading to falling water standards.

Last year, more than one-third of refusals for rural houses by the board were made because of the risk of polluting groundwater. In its most recent report, the Environmental Protection Agency found 57pc of groundwater samples were contaminated by faecal coliforms.

And while the housing market may be cooling, the board is set to handle a record number of appeals -- up 14pc so far this year. An Bord Pleanala believes that developers, who have already invested in sites, are preparing the ground by lodging planning applications in anticipation of the market improving in the year ahead.

Launching its 2006 annual report yesterday, Mr O'Connor, said the board was "somewhat surprised" that the number of appeals remained so high. If the present level of activity continued, 2007 was set to be a record year, with almost 7,000 appeals lodged, up by 1,000 from a year earlier.

"Obviously people may be expecting the market to pick up soon. Certainly the planning and appeals process is very busy," he said.

But as the number of appeals rises, so too does the time it takes to reach a determination. Mr O'Connor admitted that they had "slipped back considerably over the past few years" with less than half now decided within the 18-week statutory time objective.

Breda Heffernan
Irish Independent

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