Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council’s planning committee has rejected controversial plans to bring 11 homes to lands at Gosford Forest Park.
The decision to reject the application, that had been recommended for approval by the council’s planners, was taken following a lengthy discussion of the application that lasted for more than two hours at a meeting of the planning committee on Wednesday.
Lodged by agent Clyde Shanks on behalf of applicant Sam Marks, the application sought permission to build a residential development of 11, 1.5 storey buildings made up of three detached, two semi-detached and six townhouses, private amenity space, parking and a landscape scheme that included a walled garden maintenance plan at lands immediately adjacent and to the west of Gosford Castle.
Members of the committee were made aware an online petition objecting to the application had been submitted with at least 783 signatures on it and more being added daily. The petition calls on the council to show its commitment to the protection and conservation of the forest landscape by rejecting the proposal.
In addition to the petition, 62 objections were submitted with concerns the proposed plans would damage the forest landscape and change the whole nature, beauty and ethos of the park.
The objectors also claimed the proposal is being carried out purely and simply for commercial gain and for no other purpose and if granted approval it will set a dangerous precedent.
Having undertaken a policy assessment and planning balancing exercise, council’s planning officers objectively assessed the proposal against other material considerations and recommended the application for approval.
Speaking against the proposal, Alderman Jim Speers said he was not normally a person who objects to housing development but said the setting of this proposal is beside and adjacent to one of the most historic buildings in the borough, Gosford Castle.
“There is total opposition to this proposal as is evident with the petition and indeed my mailbox,” he said.
“The forest park is a very historic place at heart of the countryside and in my opinion a location that is contrary to any sensible planning application.”
Speaking on behalf of the application, Thomas Bell from the agent Clyde Shanks said the proposal has been through several designs and the applicant has heeded advice from the historical environment division. He also claimed the scheme represents a unique opportunity to develop an otherwise vacant private car park.
It was also noted there is an indisputable fall back position that permits a larger building that could be built at any time.
Following a very lengthy and technically detailed discussion of the proposal, several councillors raised the possibility of a site visit in an attempt to gain further clarity on the proposal.
“I would like to go to the site as I have questions in my head that could be charted through with some clarity on the site,” said Alderman Gareth Wilson.
While accepting he would be “loathe to ask for a site visit”, Councillor Kevin Savage said he was in agreement with Alderman Wilson.
Councillor Ciaran Toman said he was “swaying towards a similar position” given the number of objections and the council’s investment in the area.
Stating he would have no issue with a site visit, Councillor Sam Nicholson told the chamber he was struggling to match the application with planning policy.
“I have no issue with a site visit but this application is against planning policy BH6 and PPS21 and I just can’t get past that,” he said.
“I can see the applicant has tried their best to create something, that if it was somewhere else, we would be saying is fantastic. However, this is an area of historic importance and it is our heritage, there is a precedent being created here which could lead to who knows where.
“Personally, I just cannot get over this idea that it is against planning policy.”
The committee’s Chair, Councillor Peter Lavery said he was of the opinion the recommendation to approve the application was wrong.
“I have come to the conclusion, quite frankly, that the recommendation to approve this application is wrong and that it would be more appropriate that a refusal is laid down,” said Cllr Lavery.
“This application could create a precedent for a residential development in this area. I think it does have a negative impact on the historic forest park of Gosford.
“Officer have placed a substantial weighting on this betterment argument and I am not convinced it exists. This application fails PPS21 and fails it quite badly unless you put a substantial weight to this betterment argument.”
Cllr Nicholson then put forward a proposal to reject the application and it was seconded by Cllr Lavery
“It is an historic setting and creates a dangerous precedent, I am not comfortable with the betterment argument and it is against planning policy that protects our heritage and public parks,” said Cllr Nicholson.
With no counter proposals brought forward, the committee unanimously agreed to refuse the application.