The Munster Express recently visited a site opposite the entrance into the Cláirín housing estate in Carrick-on-Suir, which is located directly east of Sean Tracey Park on the Clonmel Road.
And to say that this plot of South Tipperary soil has whipped up quite the local debate in recent weeks and months would be putting things mildly.
Its potential use has led to heated exchanges in Town Hall and among many local residents, focusing on Carrick’s commercial future along with the possible environmental consequences of any development of this site.
Composed of grass, moss and rushes, the site is typical for a plot within close proximity of a river, in this case the Suir, from which it is separated by only a relatively slight bank and riverside footpath.
The field is virtually split levelled between the lands closest the Clonmel Road and its lower, marshy segment nearer the river’s north bank, which was completely submerged by floodwater during the recent inclement weather.
And it is here, a kilometre from Dillon Bridge, that Riussuir Developments Ltd wishes to construct a shopping centre and discount foodstore (incorporating an off-licence), along with car parking for 468 vehicles.
As part of its application, the developers also hope to construct a new bridge, one of several Suir crossings that have been mooted for Carrick-on-Suir in recent years.
For the record, the original planning permission awarded to Riussuir has been appealed to An Bord Pleanála, with a ruling due on the bridge on May 7th and the shopping centre/discount store ruling due by May 20th.
From those keen to see new employment in the area to those concerned that the Riussuir proposal could signal the death knell for shops on Carrick’s Main Street, the debate has been detailed and passionate.
Having pored through the maps, risk assessments and appeals that feature in the half-dozen folders on this planning application currently available at Carrick Town Hall, what follows is an attempt to summate this emotive issue.
to flood or not to flood?
The people of Carrick have long lived with the threat of flooding, but the flood walls constructed on the North Quays have done their job well since first installed a decade ago.
Given that Riussuir wish to develop a site upriver from these flood defences, residents and business owners in the area were destined to be concerned with any construction within proximity of these walls.
In his appeal to the development, Leslie O’Donnell writes: “I find it difficult to understand how the Planning Authority could grant permission for this site which is more prone to flooding and cite flood risk as a reason for refusal for the adjoining site which is less likely to exacerbate the situation in times of flooding.”
The adjoining site which Mr O’Donnell refers to was a development proposed by Clonmel-based Flancare Distribution, which is also among the appellants to the Riussuir project.
The Flancare project also included the development of a new bridge, a crossing considered necessary given the projected future expansion of the Coolnamuck area.
In the town’s latest development plan, it is stated that: “no proposed developments should be susceptible to flooding” and that “no proposed developments should cause or exacerbate flooding in areas outside the area of the proposed development itself”.
Having studied the Flood Risk Assessment presented to the Council, Town Clerk Michael O’Brien stated: “It is apparent from the findings presented in the Flood Risk Assessment that there is a quantifiable flood risk with developing the site. The Flood Risk Analysis acknowledges this and outlines measures to mitigate the risk.”
According to assessment authors JBA Consultants: “The hydraulic analysis has shown that provided the mitigation measures are implemented there should be no increase in flood risk upstream of the site and a negligible increase downstream, particularly when the characteristics of the Suir at the development site are considered.”
Given the findings of the assessment, Mr O’Brien considered “the principle of development on these flood prone lands is acceptable”.
During the February meeting of Carrick-on-Suir Town Council, Town Manager Pat Slattery said that the design of the proposed new shopping development would permit the car park to take floodwater during particularly poor weather.
Of course, where cars would park in the event of a significant swell is certain to concern Cláirín and Tracey Park residents should such a situation arise in the future.
The flood assessment’s research states that it takes 33,000 cubic metres of the Suir’s excess to flood the field in its current condition.
“This sounds like a lot of water,” Mr Slattery told Councillors during the February Council meeting.
“But when you spread it across the entire span of the river it would be equal to three millimetres, which is only a ripple. The mitigation measure the planners required are to ensure the site will continue to flood.”
The Riussiur proposal has won with local political support from all but one Town Councillor – Fianna Fáil’s Sylvia Cooney-Sheehan, who is among those who have appealed the ruling to An Bord.
“This development is smack in the middle of our flood plain in Carrick-on-Suir and we have in place flood relief walls to protect us from (floods),” she wrote in her second appeal submission. “My worry is (for) the future of the town.”
Labelling Mrs Cooney-Sheehan’s concerns as “pumped up” scaremongering, Labour Councillor Denis Landy said that opportunities to create significant new employment in a town don’t come around too often.
Addressing last month’s meeting, Cllr Landy said that the Riussuir development brought with it the potential of 300 permanent new jobs and a further 250 during the construction phase.
While acknowledging the environmental problems that the town’s Tannery experienced, Cllr Landy added: “Many of us in the town were glad to be fed, reared and educated out of the Tannery.
“The same issue is at play here today. Do we want 300 people to get jobs and 250 more work in construction or do we want scaremongering and building a campaign around falsehoods?”
In response, Cllr Cooney-Sheehan, who has won vocal support for her stance from Fianna Fáil TD Mattie McGrath, said she wished Cllr Landy had demonstrated the same passion for new local employment “when Heatons wanted to come [to Carrick] and create 45 jobs”.
She added: “There are people living on both sides of the river who have exactly the same concerns as I do regarding any development on this flood plain. And highlighting those legitimate concerns does not amount to a campaign.
“I don’t want the flood plains interfered with at all and the idea that this proposed shopping centre’s car park could accommodate flooding is ludicrous.
“We can all do flood assessments on paper but nobody knows what nature is going to throw at you. Why are we tampering with nature again [when] we have so many other sites in the town?”
Meanwhile, retail units constructed at Tinvane Business Park on the Waterford Road, where Heatons wished to open a store (with their application killed off by An Bord back in January) remain empty.
what about town centre retailers?
In the South Tipperary County Retail Strategy prepared by DTZ Pieda Consulting dated September 1st 2003, the following comments were offered on Carrick-on-Suir:
“The town has limited opportunities to meet the modern space requirements of the market. The lack of good retail floorprints may be deterring the market as there is no market interest in retail space in the town…
“What requires to be addressed is that, should interest emerge, there are inherent difficulties in meeting modern convenience and comparison floorspace needs within the town centre.
“As such, unless there is land assembly and remodelling of buildings, then edge of centre and out of centre locations will require to be looked to if the town is to grow into its role as the Sub-County Town Centre for the east of the County.”
Tony and Aileen Clery run a successful newsagents on Carrick’s Main Street, one of several long-established commercial ventures in the area, the oldest being Bourke’s Drapers, now over 200 years in business.
Tony and Aileen are worried. They’re worried about the possibility of a business similar to theirs being established in one of the dozen retail units set to be built as part of the Riussuir proposal.
And given that a car parking charge isn’t likely to be implemented at the proposed development, and considering their business is located in an area of Carrick where a car parking charge does apply, the Clerys’ concerns run deep.
“We feel this centre would take business from the town centre and bring all (commercial) activity to the outskirts of the town,” they wrote in their appeal to An Bord Pleanála.
“The site for the proposed development has been a flood plain for as long as we can remember and we feel it would be more suitable to be left as a marshland for birds and wildlife.”
They added: “In the present economic climate it is hard enough to run a business without having more competition to deal with. It is our livelihood that is at stake here.”
In a Retail Impact Statement (RIS) prepared on Riussuir’s behalf by Brian Meehan and Associates on February 21st 2008, its authors state:
“Retail development such as (a) supermarket, retail warehouse and discount stores will be considered, however, small convenience and comparison shopping will be resisted at this location in order to protect the vitality and viability of the town centre.”
When taking retail planning guidelines into account, the report adds: “Retailers who will be accommodated within the proposed development are unlikely to locate in the Town Centre due to the unavailability of suitable accommodation.
“The nature and scale of the proposed development will not give rise to any vacant properties in Carrick-on-Suir…The proposed development will accommodate retailers who would otherwise not choose to locate Carrick-on-Suir due to lack of suitable accommodation (in the) Town Centre.”
In the Council’s 2007 Town Centre Strategy, it is noted that any proposed retail development within its boundary “should not have a significant detrimental impact on the vitality and viability of the town”.
Any proposed out-of-town-centre proposal would “need to be controlled to avoid having a negative impact” on businesses located on Main Street.
In a further information submission to Meehan and Associate’s original RIS dated October 17th, readers learn that, in Riussuir’s view, its project would not displace trade from the town centre.
“In this regard, the comparison goods element of the proposed development is unlikely to generate any significant trade diversion from Carrick-on-Suir Town Centre.”
Such re-assurances have evidently proven of no comfort to several appellants of the original green-lighting of the development.
Wrote local businessman Dermot Fogarty: “The power to make this decision rests with council officials who don’t live in Carrick and contribute nothing to its social and economic development.
“It seems that these officials are publicly unaccountable for their decisions and generally move on after a period of time, leaving a legacy that won’t come near ‘their back yard’.
“It would be asking too much to suppose that someone in power would have the common courtesy to listen to the people of the town and not just (consider) their long term career plans.”
In his submission Gerard Norris of Gortrush, Piltown states: “In my opinion, a town like Carrick will only take so much and whatever chance the town has at the moment it will have no chance if this planning is granted because what will happen is that people will drive to OUT OF TOWN CENTRE (his capital lettering) and will not come to the HEART of the town.
“There are many examples of this taking place both in Ireland and England. In England, they are known as Tesco towns where people drive to the edge of town, park their cars, do all their shopping there, drive home and forget completely about the (Town) Centre.”
David Skelly, who chairs the Sean Kelly Leisure Centre, was equally frank in his observations of the proposal.
“The evidence from small towns around the country is overwhelming; allow out of town retail development (i.e. competition against traditional town-centre based businesses) and you sound the death-knell for traditional family-run businesses.”
An Bord Pleanála’s ultimate bell shall toll on the Riussuir proposal come May. In the meantime, expect further argument and counter-argument on this contentious topic throughout Carrick-on-Suir and its environs.