Monday 28 June 2010

Wexford's controversial zoning hit county hard

IN EARLY 2002, four Wexford county councillors sat around a table to make crucial decisions about the future of Gorey. They had a draft local area plan in front of them, prepared by professional planners from the National Building Agency (NBA). But they apparently ignored it and proceeded to rezone hundreds of acres for residential development, writes FRANK McDONALD Environment Editor

Lorcan Allen, who served as a minister of state during the Haughey era, and his party colleague Joe Murphy, together with Michael D’Arcy (now a Fine Gael TD) and his party colleague Deirdre Bolger seemed to think they knew better than the planners did. Coincidentally, some of the land rezoned was owned by Allen’s mother and Bolger’s husband’s company.

It didn’t matter that the NBA’s planners had estimated that up to 70 per cent of the town’s new residents were Dubliners who commuted to work daily in the capital – 80km from their homes. Or that Gorey Community School, the largest secondary school in Ireland, was already bursting at the seams. “Development” was the only priority.

Thus, as one senior planner commented, north Wexford was “hit by two wallops”: first, the designation of Courtown under the tax incentive scheme for run-down seaside resorts, which led to an explosion of house-building in the area and, second, the incorporation of Gorey, an old market town, into Dublin’s extended commuter belt.

Under the plan adopted in 2002, sufficient land was rezoned by the four councillors to cater for up to 10 times Gorey’s then population of about 3,000 – depending on the density at which housing was built. This was emphatically not in line with the planning advice they got, but then minister for the environment Martin Cullen did nothing to stop them.

Lorcan Allen, whose mother died not long after the rezoning of 36 acres of her land at Raheenagurran, located at a junction on Gorey’s new bypass, put the site up for sale in October 2006. A spokesman for his auctioneering firm, Allen and Kenny Ltd, thought the “superb development holding” could fetch €1 million an acre. But it didn’t sell.

By then, the steam was going out of the market. Such was the development activity in and around the town that Gorey’s population had doubled in just four years, from 2002 to 2006. This was directly aided by improvements to the N11, which brought Dublin within an hour-and-a-half’s driving time, and by more frequent rail services.

According to figures compiled by Wexford County Council, the average price of a house in Gorey increased by 58 per cent between 2004 and 2006, when three-bed semi-detached houses were selling for €325,000. “Entry-level” properties, usually two-bed mid-terrace townhouses aimed at young couples, could be bought for €260,000.

Much larger one-off houses popped up all over the countryside, often as “executive homes”; in 2003, councillors voted through a Fianna Fáil-sponsored series of amendments to the county development plan, which made it much easier for people to get permission for rural one-off houses – including the omission of any “local needs” requirement.

Adopted in response to lobbying by the Irish Rural Dwellers Association and criticism from An Taisce, the amended plan said Wexford County Council “will facilitate the provision of single rural houses and cluster development in rural areas”. It would also allow houses closer to road frontages and permit the sharing of septic tanks.

While applicants for full planning permission would have to be the intended owner and first occupier of a house, this would not apply to applicants for outline permission – so landowners would be free to sell sites. The minimum period of occupancy for new homeowners would be five years, but even this could be waived in exceptional circumstances.

There were also strong development pressures in picturesque seaside villages, such as Kilmore Quay, which local objectors said was in danger of being “raped” by new holiday homes, and Ballymoney, near Gorey, where luxury detached houses at the Seafield Golf and Country Club were selling for up to €900,000 and sites from €250,000 in 2004.

Three years later, Wexford County Council refused planning permission to Prospect Homes for 226 houses, maisonettes and apartments in Ballymoney village, saying it wanted to avoid “extensive areas of suburban-style housing” to preserve the character of the village. Blackwater, however, had suburban estates tacked onto it.

In Courtown Harbour, a succession of daring schemes to demolish two of its long-established hotels – the Bayview and Ounavarra – to make way for holiday apartment blocks up to five storeys high were turned down by An Bord Pleanála (most recently in 2007) on the basis that this “would adversely affect the character of this coastal village”.

Wexford town was allowed to sprawl in every direction, with car showrooms and even out-of-town office blocks up to five storeys high being built in Drinagh, on the Rosslare road. A “decentralised” office block on Newtown Road, designed by Scott Tallon Walker for 250 staff from the Department of the Environment, was opened last Friday.

Although the town’s quayfront regeneration project won an urban design award from the Irish Planning Institute in 2002, many of the trees planted there are looking ragged now. And there’s no sign of Trinity Wharf, the huge scheme by Deerland Construction that was to include a shopping centre, offices, a hotel and 266 apartments.

But Wexford can rejoice in its new Opera House, designed by Office of Public Works architects in collaboration with Keith Williams. Already a multiple award-winner, it has added a distinctive contemporary element to the town’s skyline. Another boost was Coca Cola’s decision in 2008 to establish a manufacturing and RD facility in Wexford.

More extraordinary was the news a year earlier from Providence Resources that it had made a “significant” oil find off Hook Head, on the south Wexford coast. According to the company’s chief executive, Tony O’Reilly jnr, there could be 70 million barrels of recoverable oil offshore – similar to a “good- to large-sized field in the North Sea”.

BACK IN GOREY, development was grinding to a halt as the credit crunch kicked in. Builders of new estates such as Meadow Gate, where the first phase had sold off the plans in 2006, had to cut prices to get buyers for houses that came later and some have yet to be sold, although the town doesn’t have a huge collection of empty houses.

A sheltered housing scheme directly opposite the gates of Gorey’s Catholic church, designed by Paul Keogh Architects for the St Vincent de Paul Society, showed what could be done to develop “backland” sites in Irish towns. Certainly, the elderly residents couldn’t be more delighted as they now live within walking distance of everything.

Now, a new batch of five local councillors have set about the task of dezoning more than 250 acres of land zoned for residential or commercial development around Gorey in 2002. They’ll be meeting this morning to consider the submissions made by members of the public, including disappointed landowners, on the draft local area plan.

Cllr Malcolm Byrne (FF), who opposed much of what was done eight years ago, believes the latest effort is a much more balanced plan than the 2002 version. “The common view in town is that we must get this plan right,” he says.

Irish Times

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