By Dan Walsh
The 10-member Gorey-Kilmuckridge Municipal District Council voted in favour -6 votes to 4 -calling on Wexford County Council to take public ownership of Courtown Woods in response to the controversial campaign known locally as ‘Protect Courtown Woods’ which notched up around 8,000 signatures in a local petition and was supported by 800 visitors last Saturday.
The issue was top of the agenda at the May meeting of Gorey-Kilmuckridge Municipal District Council held by Microsoft Teams in keeping with Covid-19 guidelines and protocols today (Tuesday).
The motion submitted in the names of An Cathaoirleach Cllr Joe Sullivan, Cllrs Andrew Bolger, Diarmuid Devereux, Donal Kenny and Fionntán Ó Súilleabháin was worded as follows;
“We, the members of Gorey-Kilmuckridge Municipal District wish to call on Wexford County Council to take into public ownership, Forest Park Leisure Complex and the adjoining 40 acres of protected Woodland for the use and enjoyment of our local community and visitors to the area for the future.”
Neil Hughes of Baker Tilly, Enniscorthy, (with Conor Noone), appointed by the High Court as Liquidators on July 28th 2020, gave an update in relation to the status of Gorey-Courtown Forest Park and Courtown Waterworld where existed a fast developing situation and had just received Department approval in terms of transition of ownership of the facilities there.
Mr Hughes said the potential operators are successful entrepreneurs who were recently involved in a successful crafts food and beverage business who have put together a business plan and a team, they will be looking to recruit a general manager and he quoted their vision;
“We wish to enhance Courtown Adverture and Leisure Centre further so that it becomes a more integral part of the community. We seek for it to be a place where the holistic well-being of the Courtown community can be nurtured. Courtown Woods has always been an important amenity and we intend to keep it that way. We are committed to maintaining public access throughout the woods.”
A substantial seven-figure investment is being made available. The plans guarantee continued access to local community groups and they are aware that the support of the community is essential going forward and they want to engage with that immediately.
Mr Hughes said that they would be looking to progress so that plans can be started and Phase One would involve immediate maintenance and painting other essentials to ensure that the pool and gym opens as a matter of urgency. “If we can get this done quickly we think that can happen within approximately eight weeks; i.e it will open early in July!”
Cllr Fionntán Ó Súilleabháin said twenty times more public funding than has gone into it than what was the debt at the time of going into liquidation. This is wrong, he believed, and he alleged there is no way that public money and a woods that has been there for two hundred years should be given to a private consortium for a seven figure sum.
Cllr Pip Breen who declared he is a forestry owner pointed out that the woods were never in local ownership. They belonged to Lord Courtown and then passed to Coillte who sold them on to Waterworld and the Swimming Pool. He recommended the plan that Neil Hughes outlined, it could be open in July, and he felt that is what Courtown needs. “The guarantees that support the public right-of-way are cast iron. To get a felling licence in Courtown could not happen,” he added.
Cllr Andrew Bolger felt the woods should be in public ownership. “I spent a lot of time over the past number of weeks listening to the public and their views are clear. The people have spoken and it is our job to represent them. If it is in public ownership I think this issue will never arise again.”
Cllr Donal Kenny was impressed by Neil Hughes’ presentation. “I am more a walker than a swimmer and I would be concerned about insurance claims coming in and premiums going up and would the gates be closed on it sometimes? Is there a chance of the Council taking over some of the woods where the walks are?” he enquired.
Cllr Willie Kavanagh noted that the Council had poured a lot of money into it over the years to try and keep it going for the people of Courtown, but the management allowed it into voluntary liquidation, “If we financed it again as a Council would we be throwing good money over bad and be back in the same boat again in a few years’ time,” he asked.
Cllr Oliver Walsh agreed with a great presentation. He wondered if there was any contribution coming from the Executive or the Manager? “From what I gather there is no intention by Wexford County Council taking over this development and I think by voting for this motion we are only giving the people of the area false hope,” he concluded.
Cllr Diarmuid Devereux said that the liquidator will be off the stage so he is not in any position to give guarantees. “This is not a row between a community and a liquidator this is a situation where on 17 different occasions I was told by senior management at Wexford County Council that they could not interfere in this process because it had nothing to do with Wexford County Council it was only a matter for the liquidator. I think, Chairman, we can take it now – that is not exactly the case.”
Cllr Devereux continued; “What Section 38 means is that there is no guarantee and the new owner using language like “I guarantee access – what exactly does that mean? The 8,000 people may not be experts but the community group in Courtown fighting this case have chartered engineers, health experts, retired solicitors and retired barristers and they are all hardworking decent people and there is absolutely no way that I am not going to vote for that motion and anyone that votes it down today, so be it you have beaten us, but letting down 8,000 of the electorate – that is not democracy!
Cllr Anthony Donohoe agreed with Cllr Devereux that changes can occur in the local area plan, but he pointed out that the local area plan is put together by councillors who sit around the table and zone land and as long as I am sitting around the table zoning will not be changed for Courtown Woods.
Cllr Mary Farrell instanced that if something drastic were to happen in the future to the woods then it is up to the sitting councillors of the time to stand up and make the decision to speak up and protect the woods. “As long as I am here I will never agree for Courtown Woods be sold and private development put into it,” concluded Cllr Farrell.
Director of Services, Amanda Byrne insisted that the facts be looked at; no sense in speculation or looking at mistakes that happened in the past. “Wexford County Council did everything in their power to support the running and operation of the pool – that didn’t have the effect that it should have – and in the end the voluntary Board put it into liquidation. At this point BakerTily have successfully secured an investor, the preservation of the woods are protected and absolutely guaranteed by zoning, access is guaranteed by Section 38 and there are also the various environmental designations. “So, in effect you have the best of both worlds. The Council’s only involvement was to safeguard the community interest as a creditor,” concluded Ms Byrne.
Cathaoirleach Cllr Joe Sullivan thanked everybody for their contributions and acknowledged respect for all points of view. “The very essence of public representation is to represent the views of the people – the people who elected us to represent them and I believe that the people of North Wexford and the Gorey area and the Courtown area don’t wish to see the ownership of the woods going to a private investor. You are talking about 40 acres of woodlands there for hundreds of years through generations, and I, as an elected representative in this area would be very slow to make any decision that would endanger that heritage and can I be sure that if that land goes to a private investor that in ten years’ time it would be the same as today – no I cannot – the only assurance I can give is that it will remain as woodlands in public ownership. For that reason, I will be supporting the motion,” concluded Cllr Sullivan.
The Council voted in favour of the motion by 6 votes to 4. In favour – Cllrs Bolger, Devereux, Donohoe, Kenny, Ó Súilleabháin and Sullivan. Against; Cllrs Breen, Farrell, Kavanagh and Walsh.