Francie Kennedy leads the sing-song at the finale of the Night of Music with Eamonn Monahan in Harveys Point
Keeney obtains permission for Magee site - Bord refuses
Bennett at Mullans
Few could imagine when they woke up on a cold damp Monday morning on 18th December 2006 that within the following seventy-two hours both Donegal County Council and An Bord Pleanala would have issued their eagerly awaited decisions on two of the most significant developments ever proposed for Donegal Town
The first news to break on the Monday morning was, as expected, that Donegal County Council, had, after thirteen months, finally granted planning permission to Keeney Construction Limited, in partnership with Magee Clothing Limited, for the erection of a massive mixed use town centre development on the site of the Magee Factory and adjoining lands at Milltown. This has now paved the way for the erection of a new supermarket (understood to be anchored by Tesco Ireland), fifteen retail units, 250 residential units, office accommodation, car parking provision for 950 vehicles and new vehicular and bridge crossings over the River Eske. News quickly spread throughout the country via local and national radio that the Councils decision could result in the creation of up to 1,000 jobs in the town.
Within forty-eight hours of that decision being released, it was announced that An Bord Pleanala had decided to refuse the planning application submitted by Bennett Construction for the erection of a Dunnes Stores Supermarket; a local centre accommodating twelve individual retail units; and a wine/bar restaurant on the site at the Mullans, for reasons relating to the distance of the site from the town centre and the likelihood of the proposed development causing severe traffic congestion on the by-pass and the approach roads leading into and out of the town. The Boards decision was met with a sense of disbelief and bewilderment throughout a community which is still coming to terms with the redundancies in the Hospira Pharmaceutical Plant and the Magee Clothing Factory.
Whilst the true reasons for the Boards decision on the Bennett application were somewhat vague in the run-up to and in the period immediately after Christmas, the Inspectors Report which led to its decision has since been released and provides a fascinating insight into the Boards deliberations on what has become one of the most controversial and talked about battles between rival developers in the entire country.
The Report reveals that the Inspector, Stephen OSullivan, who also recommended the refusal of the retail park at Drumlonagher in March 2006, had once again been appointed by the Board to assess the merits of the proposed scheme on the site at the Mullans. Mr OSulllivan had submitted his report and recommendation to the Board on 10th October 2006. It then took a further two months to reach its decision, holding back and awaiting, it would now appear, the County Councils decision on the development proposed on the Magee site.
In an astonishingly scathing report, the Inspector dismissed claims made by Bennetts Planning Consultants that the appeal lodged on behalf of Keeney Construction Limited had been vexatious in its nature and served to safeguard the appellants own commercial interests. Mr OSullivan stated in his report to the Board that he could find no element of misrepresentation or duplicity in Keeneys position and concluded that the appeal was not vexatious, frivolous or without substance.
Mr OSullivan considered that the appeal site itself was at a greenfield location on the edge of the built-up area of Donegal town and did not form part of the towns retail core which he claimed extended no further than the bridge over the Eske. As a consequence of this he considered that the site was in an out-of-centre location inappropriate for retail development. The Inspector in particular, appeared to be critical of the County Council for failing to comply with the terms of the retail planning guidelines in its preparation of the Donegal Town Local Area Plan. This criticism seems to relate to the decision of the County Council, in partnership with the Community Chamber, to zone the appeal site within the core retail area against the advice of the County Manager and Planning Officials.
Mr OSullivan did not consider that the sequential site test submitted by Bennett with their planning application had demonstrated that the proposed development on the Mullans site would be in keeping with the sequential approach referred to in the retail planning guidelines. In simple terms the so-called sequential test requires retail development to be located as close to town centres as possible. However OSullivan did state that the site at the Magee factory was closer to the established retail core of the town than the Mullans site and could properly be considered an edge-of-centre site, thereby earmarking it as one of his, and no doubt Bord Pleanalas, most preferred location for retail development in the town.
He also stated that the Mart/Bosco site could be described as an edge-of-centre location thereby hinting that it too might be appropriate for retail development. He was not however so complimentary of the area around Drumlonagher stating that it had become the focus of higher order development following the establishment of a discount food store (Lidl) and the Councils Public Services Building and that such development had impacted on the status of the existing town centre. Such a conclusion does not bode particularly well for any future so-called higher order development at this location.
The Inspector was also hugely critical of the design quality of the scheme proposed on the Mullans site describing it as mediocre at best with an appearance that would be banal and without any architectural merit. He was of the opinion that the design and layout did not succeed in establishing attractive routes through the site or to define any spaces within it. The pedestrian routes would be disjointed and circuitous. They are laid out along landscaped strips through a car park and around road junctions, and would provide no level of visual interest to encourage pedestrian movement. The proposed buildings would appear as two isolated structures, with no clear visual relationship between them. The spaces around them would simply be perceived as car parks or service yards. The footpaths between the local centre and the surrounding car parks are somewhat wider than elsewhere on the site. However they do not in any way constitute a public realm or a civic space. He further stated that the development would have a negative visual impact due to the prominent and elevated situation of the site beside a national road, and to the facts that most of the site would be occupied by surface car parking and service yards and that the proposed buildings would not be to a high architectural standard.
Mr OSullivan was also hugely critical in his report of the access arrangements which had been designed to service the proposed retail development. He concluded that the road layout proposed did not appear to be capable of dealing with excess demands at busy periods without creating widespread traffic congestion in the town centre and on the by-pass road.
The most surprising aspect of Bennetts arguments in support of the proposed retail development on the Mullans site was that their agents had argued that the Mart site was not appropriate for retail development as contracts were in place for the purchase of the site by a third party and was no longer available to them for purchase; the site had not been available for a long period and was unlikely to be available at any stage in the short to medium term; in the absence of a master plan for the area the development of the site would be premature; an alternative site had not yet been secured in order to facilitate relocation of the Mart from the subject land; access to the mart lands were severely restricted; and the proposed development would intensify the congestion problem in the town centre. These were astonishing claims for the Mullingar based company to make given their well known interest in the Mart site and the fact that the earlier contract between Keeney Construction and the Mart Society to which they referred had been rescinded in September 2005 - some seven months before the appeal was even lodged!!
In support of some the claims made by Bennetts in relation to the Mart, a letter had also been submitted to the Board from Mr Seamus Carbin, Secretary of the Donegal Co-operative Livestock Mart Limited dated 05th January 2006 in which Mr Carbin stated that the site at Ardlenagh upon which Keeney Construction had secured planning permission for a replacement mart was not acceptable to the Society and that there was now a requirement for a bigger mart facility than the one granted planning permission at that location. Mr Carbin also stated that it would take 12-15 months before planning permission was obtained for a replacement mart and at least three years (i.e. January 2009) before the mart could move from its current location to a fully operational replacement facility at Tullyearl. Mr Carbin concluded his letter by stating that no planning application could be made on the existing mart site for any retail development, until planning is granted for the new mart at Tullyearl, and that the Society would not be handing over possession of the existing mart site until such time as the new mart is built, occupied and fully operational. An application has still not been submitted to Donegal County Council for the replacement mart - twelve months on from when Mr Carbins letter was written.
Somewhat worryingly for the Mart Society is the fact that the Inspector, Mr OSullivan has stated in his report that no substantial reason has been given as to why the site at Ardlenagh would be unsuitable as a location for a replacement mart facility. This casts even further doubt on the ability of Bennett Construction Limited to achieve permission for such a facility at Tullyearl.
The unanimous decision of the Board to refuse planning permission for the proposed development at the Mullans was the subject of scathing criticism from politicians and other community leaders in the area. Chairman of the Community Chamber, Mr Ernan McGettigan said on local radio that he was disgusted with the Board for ignoring the wishes of the local community. Councillor Sean McEniff condemned what he described as the faceless individuals of An Bord Pleanala who he claimed were out of touch with the reality on the ground in the Donegal Town Area.
McEniff added We have our own democratically elected Council and professional planners. What is the point in producing a development plan, ensuring that it meets all planning conditions, only to have it rejected by people who are totally unfamiliar with the situation on the ground, he stated.
Whilst many believe that the outbursts from McGettigan and McEniff were not without justification, many others are now realising that the problem is not so much the fact that An Bord Pleanala are out of touch with reality but more so the fact that our elected members, the Community Chamber and, to a lesser extent, planning officials in Donegal County Council are out of touch with, and are continually ignoring, planning policies which have been established at Government level. Whilst many will have their own views on An Bord Pleanala they can not be accused of being inconsistent in their decision-making activities in Donegal Town, having now refused planning permission for five significant retail developments on the trot - in each case have stated that sites closer to the town centre must be developed first.
Bennett Construction would, at long last appear to be taking An Bord Pleanalas now numerous decisions on board if the statement they issued last week about developing the mart site at Milltown is anything to go by. According to its Director John White, plans to develop this site are expected to be agreed in the New Year. Whilst it is encouraging to hear that the Mullingar based company is at long last endeavouring to develop the mart site they have yet to secure planning permission for a replacement mart facility at Tullyearl which is yet another proposal flying in the face of Government policy.
If the comments of Mr OSullivan in relation to the mart are anything to go by it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Bennett Group might unintentionally be leading the people of Donegal on a wild goose chase with little prospects of success in the long term. We have already been down the failed route on three occasions in the past with the Mullingar based company nobody wants to go down it again. Given that the Mart Society have decided not to allow the Bennett Group to submit an application for the redevelopment of the existing mart site until planning permission is granted for the replacement facility at Tullyearl, and the difficulties in developing the mart site as highlighted by Bennetts themselves in their submissions to An Bord Pleanala, there will be many of us will be under the sod before any meaningful development occurs on that site.
There is no escaping the fact that the future prospects of our town are now very clearly in the hands of Keeney Construction Limited who have secured planning permission for their exciting and commendably planned town centre mixed use development on the Magee site. This project is certain to go ahead this year unless, it too, is referred to An Bord Pleanala. Five parties have lodged observations with the Council in relation to this application and could yet refer the decision to the Board. Whilst they would all be within their democratic rights to do so, such an action would at best delay the Keeney project from progressing by up to twelve months and, at worst, could see it being refused planning permission which would deny the town of the 1,000 much needed jobs that would be generated should it be allowed to go ahead. Whilst Keeney might have been the only objector to the scheme on the Mullans, he always had the benefit of having an alternative and considerably better proposal on the table at Milltown. The five parties who have lodged observations on the application to the Council and who could yet refer the decision to An Bord Pleanala have no alternatives and would effectively be holding the town to ransom at a time when jobs and new investment are urgently needed.