ENVIRONMENT Minister Phil Hogan has confirmed that planning and development regulations which he is putting through the Oireachtas will reduce the exempted development threshold for drainage of wetlands, from 20 hectares to one tenth of a hectare (about quarter of an acre), and reduce the threshold for a mandatory environmental impact assessment (EIA) of drainage of wetlands from 20 to two hectares.
He said planning applications will be required for drainage works less than 0.1 ha, in cases where the drainage would have a significant effect on the environment.
An environmental impact statement will be required with planning applications for drainage of wetlands under 2 ha, where it is determined that the drainage would have a significant effect on the environment.
Guidance is being prepared by the Agriculture and Environment departments for planning authorities, farmers and other interested parties. "The threshold of 0.1 ha in the case of planning permission will allow for minor access works and maintenance. Any more substantial development will require screening for an environmental impact assessment as part of a planning application."
Farmers have expressed serious concern that land improvement projects will be shelved if the legislation is adopted as proposed.
Mr Hogan said a European Court of Justice judgment necessitates a major reduction in the acreage thresholds.
He said the European Commission has advised of numerous instances where damage to the environment occurred on wetlands, even on a very small scale. "For example, lands drained by a small ditch can severely impact on the local environment."
This matter was raised in the Dáil by Longford-Westmeath Fine Gael TD Nicky McFadden.
Mr Hogan responded: "I understand the concerns of the farming community as articulated by the deputy, and the need to ensure an overly bureaucratic regime is not established. The State, however, must respond quickly and comprehensively to the judgment of the European Court of Justice. Otherwise, Ireland will be the subject of serious fines imposed by the Commission."
He said removal of field boundaries, and converting semi-natural areas to intensive agriculture and ordinary field drainage, will be regulated through a new process operated by the Department of Agriculture. "The drainage of wetlands will be retained to be dealt with in the planning system."
Ms McFadden called for the issue to be raised at this week’s EU Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting, so that a solution can be agreed. She said farmers need clarification, including how much they will have to pay for planning applications and EIAs.