An award-winning Armagh gym has won a five year battle to keep its doors open as planning red tape threatened its future.
Maxx Life Gym was on the brink of closure with planning officials set to reject their Tullysaran HQ as they did not deem it a ‘necessary community facility’.
The application to change the use of a former agricultural building on the Terraskane Road was submitted back in 2015, with the gym operating on the site since.
Planners sought to reject the application and the gym’s future hung by a thread – with the final decision lying with councillors.
The recommendation for refusal centred around a policy (CTY1) which limits non-residential development in the countryside, unless it can meet certain criteria.
One such point was the need for premises to be considered “a necessary community facility to serve the local rural population”.
Numerous letters of support and an impassioned plea by owner Anthony McElmeel helped sway those councillors sitting on planning committee – which was streamed live on YouTube – on Wednesday night.
Despite the recommendation for rejection, councillors sided with the Mr McElmeel in allowing the change of use application.
Addressing the committee, remotely via zoom, Mr McElmeel, said he could demonstrate that his proposal represented a necessary community facility to serve the local rural population.
“Regular exercising is a necessity of a healthy lifestyle that every single person should be entitled to, and have easy access to,” he said.
“The majority of our members are from the local rural communities of Tullysaran, Killylea, Benburb, Caledon, Blackwatertown, Tynan, and Eglish.
“Maxx Life gym is the closest and most easily accessible fitness facility for many of these rural communities. Exercising is a very important part of many of our members daily routines.
“However, should these members be required to travel to the larger settlements of Armagh or Dungannon to exercise, many will most definitely soon give up the habit due to accessibility obstacles.”
Mr McElmeel then stressed that the Orchard Leisure Centre is a 32 minute round trip from Tullysaran, 36 mins round trip from Benburb, and 40 mins from Caledon.
“Given the much extended travel times to fitness facilities in Armagh, many of our members from the local rural communities, who can only exercise early in the morning before work, would simply not have enough time to exercise, return home and get ready for work in time,” he added.
“As a private enterprise, we are fully inclusive and welcoming of all sides of the community, and bring many residents of different backgrounds from the mentioned rural communities together under one roof.”
Mr McElmeel emphasised his willingness to adapt the premises to any conditions attached with an approval
And in addressing possibility of adverse impact on nearby residential homes, Mr McElmeel stated that those who could potentially be affected had both submitted letters of support and that there was “no adverse impact from traffic or noise from the premises”.
Mr McEmeel continued: “Aside from planning policy, I ask the council to consider the many other benefits that the facility offers the local community.
“Exercise is the number one preventative for mental health problems, which is particularly increasing within the farming community. This facility helps the local residents improve their mental and physical health through exercise.
“Our classes provide a great meeting point for all people from the nearby rural communities, bringing neighbours together and reducing the social isolation that many rural people suffer.
“We’ve provided employment in the area for the past five years, with the possibility of nine full time job losses and more, should the application not be approved.
“I ask the council to please recognise the many benefits of my application to the local communities.
“The dependency and reliance that so many nearby residents have on the facility, and the adverse impact on all their lives without it. And to recognise that a health and fitness facility in the premises, is by far the most beneficial use to the whole rural community.”
In debating the merits of the application, Sinn Fein Councillor Garath Keating said it was something he believed could be considered a community facility.
“Yes, not withstanding it does have a commercial interest behind it but it’s promoting physical well-being and mental health and bringing that service to a rural community catchment area which may not otherwise have access to it, especially given the distance into town,” commented Councillor Keating.
“I think this is something which should be welcomed, particularly in the current climate of Covid where everyone is more health conscious and anything which makes our communities healthier is certainly something I would have a predisposition to support and see as a benefit.
“Ultimately, I would minded that anything which encourages people to be fit and health should be supported by us,” he added.
Alliance Councillor Peter Lavery said: “I would be in two minds in that I understand the rural character argument but I do see the merit in the facility as shown in the petitions of support; there seems to be a strong community support for the facility but it’s how you tie that in with the number of planning conditions.
“It’s one where it could either way and it’s where we see the balance resting.”
Planning officer Trudy Chapman commented that she was not saying the facility doesn’t serve the community but questioned whether it demonstrated a necessity and that her comment was “just a reminder to members that that is what the policy (CTY1) refers to”.
SDLP Councillor Mealla Campbell said she felt that the application “very much meets the needs of the community and that indeed it is essential for the community”.
“CTY1 also refers to the need to look after the well-being of the local community and to continue to develop appropriate economic opportunities in the countryside and I think this very much does that,” she added.
“It also talks about employment; I think these policies are vague at times and we have to weigh up how we view them.
“If I take this application in the round then I feel this is a community facility, meeting community need. It’s definitely essential in terms of the well-being of the rural community and the economic considerations at this time.
“I don’t agree with the recommendation as it sits and I would be minded to overturn that on how I view the policy.”
Ulster Unionist Councillor Sam Nicholson used the analogy of “you can drive a coach and horses through planning policy”.
“One person reads it and another reads the same thing and can have two completely different opinions on it,” remarked Councillor Nicholson.
“We do need to be careful as a committee that we do not create a precedent here because we could have a raft of these things come in, but I do think there is a uniqueness to this in relation to what it does and what boxes it ticks.
“It does re-use an old building and it would need to be heavily conditioned because I do always err on creating precedents in this committee.
“We are in a rural location here and we have to protect our rural environment but part of that protection is sustaining rural jobs, rural health and retaining rural well-being and this does that.
“There is also the environmental aspect to it because there will be less driving of the cars into cities and when you have it on your doorstep, in a rural setting, it does create that more sustainable form of living.”
The decision was taken to overturn the planners recommendation of refusal, meaning the gym will remain open.
The application will be brought back to next month’s meeting for further discussions on terms and conditions of it remaining open, including landscaping and possible opening hours.