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A computer generated image of the proposed development. Grafton Architects

An Bord Pleanála overturns two council decisions to approve controversial development in Booterstown

The plans for the leisure and biodiversity centre had been rejected by Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

AN BORD PLEANÁLA has reversed the decision of two local authorities and granted planning permission for the controversial development of a major new leisure and biodiversity centre in south Dublin.

The board has upheld an appeal by development firm, Soundvale, to construct a landmark, five-storey “recreational and interpretative centre” on the Merrion Road in Booterstown next to An Taisce’s nature reserve at Booterstown Marsh.

The ruling overturns a decision by both Dublin City Council and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council to reject the plans by Soundvale, a development firm owned by well-known businessman Paddy McKillen Jnr, of the Press Up entertainment and hospitality group which runs a large number of bars, restaurants and hotels in Ireland.

The two local authorities had separately refused planning permission for the centre on a 1.9 hectare site in Booterstown, which covers land in both administrative areas, over concerns for its potential to have a negative environmental impact on the Dublin Bay area.

The site is located opposite the Maldron Hotel on the Merrion Road.

The main building will have an overall height of 18.5 metres and consist of an interpretive centre, crèche, café, restaurant, health studios, gym, spa, swimming pool, jacuzzi and hydro pool.

Although Soundvale submitted in its planning submission that the interpretive centre was not commercially driven, it does envisage charging an entrance fee to ensure it is sustainable and generates income.

The biodiversity element of the project includes plans for a new coastal meadow, a coastal tree belt, coastal grass, shrub garden and bird hide.

The centre, which had a capacity for 120 visitors at any one time, is due to be managed by an independent, not-for-profit entity, while the recreational facilities are expected to be run by the Press Up group.

Dublin City Council refused planning permission for the project over concern that the development would have a significant impact on wetlands in Dublin Bay.

Council planners said the location of the centre was “a highly sensitive, environmentally valuable site” which was one of a few remaining vacant coastal sites within the council’s administrative boundaries.

They noted that information provided by Soundvale could not alleviate the council’s concerns that excavation work in areas of contaminated soils containing mineral oil might adversely affect groundwater which could impact on protected areas within Dublin Bay.

The council claimed dust emissions from the site would also have a moderate to high ecological impact, while a report supplied by the developer acknowledged that the project had the potential to impact on wildlife during the construction phase.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council had rejected plans for the centre over concerns about its impact on wintering birds.

The plans were also opposed by An Taisce, which claimed they would set an undesirable precedent for development of a large-scale commercial nature on green and open spaces in the city.

The heritage body pointed out that Booterstown Marsh, which is an internationally important feeding and roosting area for ducks, geese and waders, was the only remaining saltmarsh on the south shore of Dublin Bay.

An Taisce also claimed the commercial leisure facilities would be much more appropriately located in the hotel on the opposite side of the road.

The development was also opposed by the Friends of Booterstown Coast group which claimed the site is located in the buffer zone for the UNESCO Dublin Bay Biosphere as well as being prone to flooding.

The group, some of whose members attempted to buy the site when it was controlled by NAMA, claimed the proposal was for a “commercial leisure development” which, if approved, would represent a material contravention of the existing city development plan.

However, An Bord Pleanála said it was satisfied that the proposed development would not affect the integrity of several EU protected sites around Dublin Bay.

Subject to compliance with planning conditions, the board said it would improve the existing use value of the site for recreational and amenity purposes.

The board said the new centre would also make “a positive contribution to the character of the area” and it was satisfied that it would not seriously injure the residential or visual amenities of the area or other properties in the locality.

It noted that the building will be located at the greatest distance from sensitive ecological receptors.

The board said the effects of the centre once operational would be “moderate, positive and long-term.”

An inspector ecologist with An Bord Pleanála said she was satisfied that all ecological concerns had been addressed and that mitigation measures proposed by the developer would be effective.

Soundvale claimed its objective was “to deliver a world class recreational facility and interpretative centre in a coastal meadow and biodiversity-rich setting” that would benefit the local and wider community.

It had warned that a “do nothing” scenario would result in the deterioration of an ecologically sensitive site, while its plans met the objectives of the National Biodiversity Action Plan.

The ruling by An Bord Pleanála was originally scheduled to be delivered in early 2021 but was delayed due to a backlog of cases and a detailed review of the development’s ecological impact.

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Seán McCárthaigh
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