After years of discussions with landowners, and failure to reach agreement, Kerry County Council has decided to progress plans for a Greenway by compulsory purchase order, leading to resistance, reports
CHRISTY McDonald says he’s not for turning. If it comes to it, he will stop council officials from coming onto his land.
He is perfectly open to going down the legal route, but if that fails, then all that is left is civil disobedience. One thing he is adamant about is that no land of his will be compulsorily purchased to construct a greenway.
Mr McDonald has farmed for the last 32 years in Filemore, a townland a few kilometres from Cahirciveen in south Kerry. He is now one of an indeterminable, but possibly considerable, group of landowners — mainly farmers — who say they will resist any attempt to hand over their land for a greenway.
Everybody is in favour of the greenway. The local business, social and cultural communities regard it as a lifeline for a patch of rural Ireland that is suffering badly.
The proposed greenway — or cycleway — will run largely along an old railway line from the village of Glenbeigh down to Cahirciveen and on to Renard Point, from where a ferry leaves for Valentia Island every quarter of an hour or so throughout six months of the year.
If it were to develop as envisaged it would represent something of a tourism field of dreams for the locale. It would also probably achieve iconic status due to the scenery that can be viewed along the 32km proposed route, not to mention some spectacular viaducts and tunnels.
For those whose land it will traverse, the issue is broader and deeper. This can be observed by motorists or cyclists on the Ring of Kerry N72, south of Glenbeigh. At various points. the signs are planted roadside, not intrusive in size, but clear in intent. They read: “Cycleway yes. CPO no.”
The dilemma is stark. The local authority is of the opinion that it has exhausted all other options. CPO (compulsory purchase order) is necessary to advance the project. The famers disagree.
“The CPO is the problem,” says Mr McDonald. “This was never about money but it is about the threat of a CPO. If they get away with a CPO for this, it means they can CPO any part of the country for a greenway anywhere they like.
If they win this case, they will go through everybody for a short cut. Down the line, they’re thinking of a right to roam for all.
In Cahirciveen and the surrounding hinterland, many regard the impasse with growing impatience. They’ve been waiting a long time for this greenway, waiting for it to inject life into the area, waiting for it to reverse decline.
“It would be a game-changer,” says Frank Curran, a local engineer and the chairman of the Cahirciveen development group.
“We could have hundreds of thousands coming into
the area every year and 70 or 80 jobs created directly. It would a huge boost for B&Bs as well, and this is not plucking figures out of the sky. We’ve seen that in the likes of Waterford where the greenway is a big success.
The great thing is that it is sustainable, eco-friendly and not weather dependant. It could really make a serious difference.
Behind the hope and expectation of many, however, there lies a fear of trouble ahead. In conversation with local people, a link to another dispute pops up every now and again.
Mr McDonald, it is whispered, is related to some of the Rossport Five who were jailed in 2005 over the Shell to Sea protest in Mayo. Surely there couldn’t be a repeat of that here?
Mr McDonald, a native of Mayo, confirms that he is indeed related to some of the men but he declines to say who exactly.
“Of course I have been talking to them. They were jailed in the wrong, they got 94 days in prison,” he says.
We don’t know what way this will go but we will certainly stand up for our rights.
He also disputes that the vast majority of the local community are just impatient to get the thing done, pointing out that he had even recently encountered a number of people who have sympathised with his plight.
Comparison with the Shell To Sea dispute may be convenient, but ignores the different scenarios at play here. This impasse has no foreign multinational preying on local resources. Instead it
involves a local authority acting in what it claims to be the best interests of the people locally.
However, the farmers who are in dispute are backed by their national organisation. The Irish Farmers’ Association, it appears, regards this as something of a test case. With the increasing popularity of greenways, the future approach to acquiring land for the purpose is up for grabs.
For all concerned, the stakes are really high.
The last train pulled out of Valentia Harbour on the afternoon of February 1, 1960. Europe’s most westerly railway line, the terminus for which looked out on Valentia Island, was no more. After 67 years in operation, the decision had been made that it was no longer viable.
The termination of the route was a blow to the Iveragh peninsula, but was inevitable with the emerging dominance of road transport for both personal and commercial use.
The demise also saw the end of a train journey that in parts was nothing short of spectacular. In particular, the ‘Golden Mile’, as it would be referenced in Kerry county council decades later, presented some breathtaking scenery.
This is “a section of the rail line which offers spectacular views overlooking Kells Bay and the iconic Dingle Peninsula”, the local authority’s proposal for the greenway notes.
The line winds “through century old sandstone tunnels which run for more than 230m at Drung Hill and over the spectacular Victorian Glensk Viaduct, which curves gracefully across the valley and consists of eleven curving spans 73ft above the Glensk valley”.
“The viaduct opened for traffic on the 12th August, 1893, as part of the most scenic and spectacular stretches of railway ever built in Ireland,” the proposal notes. “Stunning views of Dingle Bay, Atlantic Ocean and across to the EU Blue Flag Beaches of Inch, Ventry and Kells Bay is breathtaking.
Initial structural inspection of the Glensk Viaduct and the tunnels at Drung Hill suggest that they will require only minor repair and environmentally sensitive lighting.
But, as they say in south Kerry, you can’t eat the scenery. That would appear to have been the attitude of the Government and CIE executives of the day because a decision was taken to sell off the disused rail line to those with adjoining holdings.
This decision is at the heart of the problems that have now arisen. At the time, nobody could have predicted that the line would ever again be usable for any form of transport.
The days of cycling long distances out of necessity were drawing to a close. The notion that the future would present cycling as a form of leisure activity was entirely far-fetched.
As a result the line was sold. In some instances, the adjoining owners were reluctant to take it on. Much of the line — particularly on the ‘Golden Mile’ — is on land that is barely viable.
To that end, CIE had to appeal to some landowners to actually take possession in the years that immediately followed. Theunderstands that in a few cases, money was paid to take the line out of State hands.
The approach was in contrast to that employed in the disused Waterford to Dungarvan rail line which now operates as a highly successful greenway. When that was developed, the line was still in the possession of the state transport company, which facilitated the easiest of transfers for the proposed infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in south Kerry, the rail line more or less disappeared. Its only remaining remnants were the tunnels and viaduct, and a disused bridge entering the town of Cahirciveen.
The idea for resurrecting the line came from former minister for the Gaelteacht Éamon Ó Cuív. On an official visit to Valentia Island to open a memorial to lost Spanish sailors, he referenced the success of the Great Western greenway in Mayo, which ran on a former railway. Why not try that down here?
The South Kerry partnership began to develop the idea. It was taken on by the partnership’s agricultural committee, made up largely of farmers. This point is not lost on the farmers who are now objecting to how the matter has been handled.
Pat O’Driscoll is the IFA chair in South Kerry.
“It was farmers who wanted the greenway in the first place, that should be remembered,” he says.
Now we are being portrayed as the guys who’re blocking it.
Mr McDonald was another farmer who was all up for it.
“They took a busload of us up to Mayo to see how it worked up there,” he says.
“We thought it was a good idea and we were told the same would be done here, that the farmers would still own the land and it could be closed once a year to maintain ownership.”
The Great Western greenway was established on a “permissive access” basis. This involves the landowner giving permission for the greenway to pass over the property, but does not grant a right of way.
The recently published National Greenway Strategy lays out policy on this approach.
“The permissive access model has been very successful to date, but it can involve a degree of uncertainty for both landowners and users which may be an issue, particularly for greenways of strategic importance,” says the strategy document.
Following a feasibility study by the partnership in 2011, Kerry County Council took over the project the following year. It was quickly decided that purchase rather than permissive access was the way to go.
One source familiar with the process put it thusly: “This is a major tourism project for south Kerry. You couldn’t have a scenario where foreign visitors pre-book holidays on the basis of using it and then being told that something has come up and it’s not available on a particular day.”
With that in mind, negotiations with landowners were entered into in 2013. The proposal scheduled June 2016 as the completion date for the whole project.
Most of the 197 owners were amenable, but not everybody. A few declared they simply would not have such a throughway on their land.
Mr McDonald has a particular problem with the proposed route crossing a driveway. He proposed an alternative route.
I showed it to them,” he says. “They said that was good but then they came back and threw it up in the air. They were going to have it their way. If we were listened to from day one, there would be a greenway there now.
Kerry County Council has told thethat all avenues were explored in an exhaustive manner.
One local source who is familiar with the project — and many people are reluctant to go on the record because of sensitivities around the issue — pointed to a scenario he was aware of.
At one point along the route, negotiations were conducted with a number of farmers with adjoining holdings. This went on for five months.
“It was back and forth. He wants it one way, the other man wanted it another,” says the source.
“In the end, they nearly got agreement when another fella a bit along the way, who had previously agreed, came back and said he’d changed his mind.”
Was it ever going to be possible to get agreement?
Frank Curran, of the Cahirciveen development organisation ACARD, doubts it.
“It’s like everything,” says Mr Curran. “When you’re dealing with 170 people you’re not going to get everybody to agree. We had a meeting four years ago and even then some were saying that it would have to be by CPO.”
This point is also conceded by one of the landowners who has reached agreement with the council.
“Even if they backed down on the CPO in the morning, there would still be between four and six who just will not do any deal,” says the landowner.
In February 2015, county manager Moira Murrell recommended to the council that CPO was the only way forward. The councillors were told the project hung in the balance despite agreement by 95% of landowners. At the time just four were understood to have been fixed in their opposition.
The councillors voted to proceed. Since then, things have advanced at a snail’s pace as is often the way. Funding which had been secured had to be reapplied for. Site investigation works were held up with landowners refusing to grant access. Later this month, the council is seeking a court order to be allowed onto the holdings of two landowners.
Once the CPO was introduced, others who had reached agreement had second thoughts. Some changed horses midstream on a matter of principle, others in solidarity.
Mr McDonald says that the group he is part of now numbers around 32, representing a bit less than one sixth of all the owners.
Nationally, the IFA has also come on board as the south Kerry greenway is being seen as a rubicon.
Now that the planning process has begun, resolution of one form or another hoves into view. Everybody is hoping that confrontation can be avoided.
“It’s dragged on for so long now,” says Mr Curran. “But we’re very close to the final thing. There is finally light at the end of the tunnel.”
Mr McDonald sees it differently.
“We are all for the greenway but there will be no CPO. That’s for sure. The whole country is behind us on that.”
Supporters believe that if you build it, tourists will come
On the Iveragh peninsula, the proposed greenway has taken on the status of a field of dreams. If you build it, they, the tourists, will come.
The area might best be described as blessed by nature but cursed by peripherality.
Lying at the south-west extremity of the country and Kerry, the peninsula has long suffered from being so far from the beaten track. Depopulation is a growing issue in a place where which is effectively at the frontline of rural Ireland’s fight to remain relevant.
Caherciveen is the only town of any size in the area. The last census found that the population of the town was one of only a few in the country to record a drop, declining by over 10%. A quarter of the housing stock in the area is attributable to holiday homes.
The best illustration of the decline is offered in the one sport that dominates everything in the peninsula, Gaelic football.
The local division has 11 clubs, yet can only field four minor teams. At a recent divisional minor final in Caherciveen, six clubs were represented on the two teams.
The depopulation of the area has accelerated in recent years. For instance, there are 11 primary schools in the peninsula between Kells Bay and the village of Castlecove. In 2014, a total of 84 children were enrolled in junior infants in these schools. By last year, enrolments had dropped to 56, according to figures compiled locally.
The one thing the area has going for it is tourism. This received a boost in recent years with the exposure of the Skelligs Rock in the Star Wars movies.
However, the popularity of the island has not translated into a major boost, with visitors often making day trips to the area to see the rock.
The €4m greenway proposal drawn up by the council laid out the importance of the project.
One of the major difficulties that Glenbeigh, Caherciveen, and Valentia experience is its peripherality in relation to major towns and cities,” the proposal stated. “However, according to Fáilte Ireland, ‘for every 1,000 additional tourists… this supports 15 jobs in the tourism sector’.
“As such the addition of a Greenway to link Glenbeigh to Valentia Island will have a huge positive impact on the local economy and social fabric of the community.”
Kate Quinlan, who with her husband Andrew Cooke runs QC’s, a restaurant and boutique townhouse in Cahersiveen, believes the 32km greenway is vital for the area’s future.
“We’ve the most stunning scenery in the world here and it will transform the whole area,” she says.
“But if we don’t get it up and running in the next few years we might as well shut up shop.
The season is so short that the opportunity isn’t here to sustain a business throughout the year, particularly in trying to give people the chance for full-time employment and being able to train and pay people properly to keep jobs the whole year round.
One of the big attractions of the greenway is that it is not dependent on either the traditional tourist season or the weather.
If the South Kerry greenway is developed it will be a major leap forward in the national strategy to develop this kind of leisure activity.
In July, the Government published a National Greenways Strategy document with the objective of developing a whole network of greenways over the next 10 years. Funding of €53m is being set aside for appropriate developments.
The two flagship greenways, the Great Western in Mayo and the Waterford to Dungarvan project, are cited in the strategy as pointing the way forward.
Greenways should ideally be in the order of at least 20km in length and preferably longer,” the strategy sets out as an objective.
“In order to bring additional revenue into an area, Greenways should ideally be closer to 40km, similar to the Great Western and Waterford Greenways, as this will usually require an overnight stay for non-local users.
“In addition, Fáilte Ireland advise, that if Ireland is to be recognised internationally as a world-class activity tourism destination it will need to have the appropriate infrastructure in place in order to motivate international tourists i.e. a number of national Greenways and a spread of regional Greenways that provide a compelling visitor experience.”
Kerry project takes on significance of test case
On July 24, around 150 farmers protested outside the offices of Kerry County Council in Tralee. They had come from all over the country to show solidarity with the south Kerry farmers who were opposed to compulsory purchase orders
(CPO) on their lands.
One of those at the protest, Francie Gorman, chairman of the Laois Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), was reported as saying that the word ‘CPO’ was the worst word any farmer could hear.
The word CPO gets people’s back up,” he said. “It sets people’s antenna off. If CPOs are used for greenways, what else will they be used for?
This question is posed repeatedly by farmers and IFA representatives.
The south Kerry greenway has taken on the significance of a test case. With greenways now being seen as important tourism infrastructure, farmers fear that a long-standing order is rapidly changing.
Thomas Cooney, the national IFA chairman for the environment, says that the big fear is setting a precedent.
“While we value the importance of tourism, we don’t think it is critical that a greenway has to be in a set place,” he said.
“It can be moved around the boundary of a farm or along a quiet country road. Every townland has a different option. We think the route for this one should be done by agreement, consultation, and dialogue.”
The problem arising is that one man’s agreement, consultation, and dialogue is another man’s totally unreasonable demands.
Kerry County Council is adamant that it has conducted a number of meetings, explored various options, and moved as far as can reasonably be expected.
As far as the local authority is concerned, the dialogue had reached the end of the line.
Politicians have attempted to mediate. Some among them have, as is the wont of all politicians, attempted to ride the horses of both the concerned local community and the concerned landowners.
However, Fianna Fáil councillor Norma Moriarty, who is based in Caherciveen, is unequivocal about where she stands now.
I want the greenway to happen and the CPO process is necessary to assure that it does,” she says. “Once the planning process is complete huge investment will be opened up straight away.
“I have no equivocation about the CPO process being necessary. And I’m absolutely convinced that the minute this greenway opens up, the call will be to extend it this way and that way and we look forward to that problem when it happens.”
The requirement for a CPO is that the infrastructure in question must be part of a county development plan. The plan must be approved by the members of the local authority.
This in turn provides the statutory basis for a CPO. The members are elected, and deemed to be acting in the “common good” as set by the landmark Local Government (Planning and Development) Act, 1963, which makes provision for CPOs.
The CPO process will be conducted at the same time as the planning process. As the project required an environmental impact study, the planning application is referred directly to the planning board.
If, as expected, the board approves the project, and depending on any conditions attached, the CPO process then kicks in.
Once planning approval is received the council has 18 months to effectively serve notice on the landowners. When that notice is served the landowners have eight weeks to lodge a claim for compensation.
That, in turns, kicks off negotiations on how much compensation is to be awarded. This can often be drawn out, but it does not interfere with the council’s next move, which is to enter and take possession of the land in question.
An interesting feature of the CPO process is that all landowners will be subjected to it, including those who had already reached agreement with the council.
Apart from principled objections to CPO, this feature may well have contributed to some of the farmers and landowners reversing their earlier willingness to play ball with the council.
The universal approach to the process is based on the requirement to treat everybody with fairness.
Pat O’Driscoll, who farms on Valentia Island and is the local chair of the IFA, says that the universal application of the CPO is questionable.
At first it was all down to just four individuals who had issues with it,” he says. “But we were told that, if one objected, they would have to CPO the whole lot. I think there was an agenda from day one here and that was to get complete ownership of the route and to have no ambiguity about it.
For those objecting, the first line of defence would most likely be to seek a judicial review of the CPO. As with all legal actions, this can be extremely costly, particularly in the event of an unsuccessful challenge, where costs are awarded.
Legal sources consulted for this piece suggest that the odds would not favour a successful challenge, but legal opinion differs and clients stump up.
There is some speculation that the IFA may be willing to underwrite any legal challenge on the basis of what is at stake.
Mr Cooney would not be drawn on any such backing.
“That has not been discussed,” he says. “But there is certainly going to be problems if they try to bulldoze through with the CPO.”
In response to questions from the, Kerry County Council issued the following statement: “The 32km South Kerry Greenway is a project of major economic and tourism benefit to south Kerry, an area which has experienced population decline and economic challenges in recent years.
It is a key strategic project and a top priority for Kerry County Council which will be developed in keeping with government policy on the development of tourism amenities and attractions and the recently published Greenways Strategy.
“As the old railway line along which most of the route will be developed was not in the ownership of Kerry County Council, the council set about acquiring the required land.
“Following extensive consultation with the land-owners, it became apparent that the acquisition of the required lands could not be achieved by agreement.
“As it was not possible to acquire the land by agreement, it was necessary to pursue the CPO land acquisition process to ensure the completion of this hugely strategic project.”
A planning application for the South Kerry Greenway (which includes the CPO notice and Environmental Impact Assessment Report) has been lodged with An Bord Pleanála.