A couple have brought a legal challenge to permission for afforestation on what they say are extremely sensitive lands near special conservation areas adjoining their home near the Border in Blacklion, Co Cavan.
Initial tree planting works have begun on the 6.9 hectare site which is in an area known for its extremely rare underground limestone paving extending to the UNESCO Global Geopark site of the Marble Arch Caves in Co Fermanagh, the High Court heard.
It follows the February last decision of a Forestry Appeals Committee (FAC), appointed by Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine, to grant permission to Greenbelt Ltd and Michael and Mary Maguire, of Monragh, Blacklion, for the afforestation plan.
Two other local residents, civil servants Francis and Anne Marie Cassidy, objected to the plan on several grounds. Their family home is 100 metres from the site and will directly look out on to it.
They were granted leave to bring judicial review proceedings over the decision against the FAC, the Minister and the State, with Greenbelt and the Maguires as notice parties. It followed a one side-only-represented application by Michael O'Donnell BL, for the Cassidys.
Mr Justice Charles Meenan also granted a stay on works on the site and adjourned the matter to June.
The court heard the Minister initially approved the scheme and this was upheld by the FAC despite objections from the couple.
The Cassidys say they only became aware of the original application, in April 2017, many months afterwards through a third party. They complain the public notification system was inadequate and there had been a failure to comply with EU regulations in this regard.
The Minister failed to apply the appropriate tests, as required by EU directives, including the Habitats Directive, as to whether the project required an environmental impact assessment, they say.
The Minister also purported to carry out an appropriate assessment screening but an ecologist's report on it contained "fundamental errors", they say. The assessment was limited to a "box ticking exercise" and also erroneously referred to a site with a similar name in Donegal.
The FAC should have dealt with the appeal over the Minister's decision as a new case rather than just reviewing the original decision, they say.
The FAC erred in law in approving the decision in circumstances where the Minister had confirmed there was a possibility of an effect on a conservation site, they say.
The FAC was also in breach of its obligations in relation to the carrying out of an assessment as required by EU directives and in failing to consider whether the project was likely to have a significant effect on the environment, they say.
The lands lie within an area which is identified as one for special protection under the Cavan County Development Plan and contains a number of public rights of way which traverse through the site, they say.
They are also near the Cavan Burren Park, the Stairway to Heaven Cuilcagh Walking Trail and the Cavan Way, which are areas of very significant geological, hydrogeological, botanical and ecological significance.
The land also contains rare and endangered species, is the subject matter of Flora Protection Order 1999 and is a foraging site for the hen harrier, and the resident bats.