Controversial rezonings in Cork

The greenbelt area around Cork city has been opened up for development, in defiance of the local senior planner and An Bord Pleanála. By Frank Connolly

Lands in the greenbelt area around Cork have been opened up for development at the initiative of the county manager, Maurice Moloney, in defiance of recommendations of the senior planner in Cork and of An Bord Pleanála.

One of the major beneficiaries of this is Castlelands Construction, owned by Mallow businessman, John Barry, who plans to build hundreds of houses and apartments in the Bishopstown area.

In response to questions from Village, based on local suggestions that there may have been a conflict of interest involved in this initiative, the county manager, Maurice Moloney, denied he had any involvement or connection with Castlelands Construction. He acknowledged that Castlelands Construction had built his house in Mallow "on the basis of tendering arrangements organised by my architect". Moloney said he purchased the site for his house in 2001 from Mallow Castle Estates, which, according to documents from the Companies Office, has since been dissolved.

Village unreservedly accepts Moloney's assertion there was no conflict of interest involved in the exercise of his powers as county manager.

Controversy concerning greenbelt development arose when permission was granted for a new traffic roundabout on the N71 at Bishopstown earlier this year.

The elected members of the Carrigaline area committee of Cork County Council voted in favour of the new roundabout at Garrendarragh, Bishopstown in July 2006 to service a proposed new private hospital, as well as a park-and-ride facility and a new cemetery.

The decision opened up for development the lands owned by Castlelands Construction. The roundabout proposal was vigorously opposed by the senior planner in the county, Nicholas Mansergh (brother of the Fianna Fáil Senator, Martin Mansergh).

Mansergh had also opposed the application for the hospital development stating the application was grossly excessive and three times larger than the plan originally submitted for the hospital.

An Bord Pleanála also had refused permission for the roundabout and a proposed access road on safety grounds. It did so because it said this would cause traffic congestion on an already busy stretch of road, close to the existing Bandon roundabout.

In its report of November 2005 An Bord Pleanála quoted from the earlier objection by Nicholas Mansergh. It stated: "The senior planner [Nicholas Mansergh] notes that it would make no sense to permit the roundabout unless the development to be served by it is also permitted. He has already recommended refusal of the access road to the zoned housing land and of the medical campus/park-and-ride scheme. The subject proposal is unacceptable because its main function is to open up for development greenbelt land..."

The report by An Bord Pleanála continued: "The appearance and the function of the green belt in this area is of outstanding importance, and the need to resist the enabling role of the roundabout in facilitating these damaging developments is correspondingly important."

However, senior council officials, known as the planning team, chaired by the county manager, Maurice Moloney, circumvented An Bord Pleanála's refusal by granting permission for the roundabout and access road under part eight of the Planning Act 2000/2002 which exempts certain developments from the appeals process.

According to Councillor Derry Canty (Fine Gael), the seven-member Carrigaline area committee was persuaded to support the roundabout proposal on the basis that it would provide access to the new hospital, a park-and-ride facility and the local St James cemetery. However, he says that the real motivation behind the proposal was to facilitate the plans of Castlelands Construction on lands with an estimated value of ?100m.

"I hold that the green belt in Bishopstown is sacrosanct," Canty told Village. "But the members of the committee gave the go-ahead for the roundabout because of the hospital, the park-and-ride and the cemetery access. These may have been red herrings as there are a lot of developers with their eyes on the green belt and this could open it up between Bishopstown and Ballincollig. Castlelands are the main beneficiaries of this decision. Planning in the county has gone crazy over the past few years."

The roundabout proposal was proposed to the area committee by Fianna Fáil councillors, Michael McGrath and Mark O'Keefe and passed without a division.

Documents obtained from Cork County Council show that the land now envisaged for the hospital and Castlelands' residential development were previously owned by Rosridge Properties Ltd, which was owned by the late solicitor and developer James G O'Mahony. Parts of the land were rezoned for residential use under the 2003 county development plan.

Efforts by James O'Mahony to obtain planning permission for a largescale residential development were rejected by the council's senior planner, Nicholas Mansergh, and by An Bord Pleanála between 2004 and 2005. O'Mahony sold the land bank to Castlelands Construction. James O'Mahony died earlier this year.

Councillors and local residents have also objected to the granting of planning permission for a car showroom in the shadow of the viaduct, a protected structure and local landmark close to the planned new roundabout on the N71. The site was previously the location for an unauthorised car-sales business which was ordered to close down by the district court at the request of the county council.

The decision to grant outline permission for the car showrooms, after it was previously refused, again followed the intervention of the county manager, Maurice Moloney. In a note on file at the council Moloney said that he was exercising his reserved powers in relation to the application.

"Having regard to the type and extent of the development involved, I hereby reserve to the holder of the office of Cork County Manager the function and duty of determining this major application," he wrote on 3 May 2006.

Normally such decisions in the area are made by the assistant county manager (south Cork), John Deasy. A spokesman for the county manager said that a condition of the permission was that existing buildings on the site were to be removed and that this had been complied with.

Canty said: "This is another questionable decision. If you go back in history you will find that the existing car showrooms were supposed to be removed. The viaduct is a protected structure and should be enhanced with proper lighting. Now all of a sudden there is to be a modern showroom built there."

In response to questions from Village on this issue Maurice Moloney said: "Among the conditions attached to the permission [for the car showrooms] was a condition requiring the removal of existing buildings on site. This condition was complied with prior to any commencement of development".

John Barry of Castlelands Construction is one of the most successful developers in the county and recently joined the elite group of Irish people who own private jets.

FF councillor / auctioneer supported rezoning and then sold houses built on the lands

A Fianna Fáil member of Cork County Council has confirmed that he supported the rezoning of lands at Midleton and then, in his capacity as an auctioneer, sold the houses subsequently built on the lands.

Councillor Maurice Ahern (pictured) told Village that he supported the rezoning, three years ago, of lands at Banshane on the edge of the east Cork town. He was then commissioned as an auctioneer to sell the houses built on the land by Castlelands Construction.

According to Ahern, the lands were rezoned to residential in order to attract more people to the area and, in turn, to persuade the government to restore the disused railway connection to the town. "There had to be more numbers in the town to justify the railway so the pressure was on us to zone the land near the railway line," Ahern said.

He said he was employed to sell the houses after the rezoning took place. "I was employed by Castlelands afterwards to sell the houses on the same basis as any auctioneer," he said.

Asked did he recognise the potential conflict of interest involved in supporting the rezoning of lands as a member of the county council and then selling the houses built on them as an auctioneer, Ahern (a brother of junior minister, Michael Ahern) said: "What is a conflict of interest? I have supported the re-zoning of other lands and have no role in sales afterwards. In this case the land was zoned and later I was appointed by Castlelands to sell the houses." He said his firm sold only a portion of the properties.

Last year, on the recommendation of the county manager Maurice Moloney, adjoining lands at Banshane were rezoned residential by the councillors, including Maurice Ahern. A planning application for new houses is under preparation by Castlelands Construction.

"That land has been rezoned but I have not been approached or had any discussions with Castlelands," said Ahern, whose Midleton firm is in partnership with Property Team Ltd.

Ahern pointed out that there were eight or nine elected members of Cork County Council who are also professional auctioneers. "There are other lands in east Cork where auctioneers who are councillors are involved in sales."