Residents of Waterford city and county were stunned last weekend when news emerged that all county councilors and Dungarvan town councilors were being interviewed by gardai in connection with an alleged planning irregularity.
The elected representatives were said to be surprised, and some quite upset, at being interviewed by gardai about a matter that had yet to be voted on. One prominent representative from the east of the county told The Munster Express he had been visited in his home by gardai. “I was surprised that it happened but I had no problem with their presence or about answering their questions”, he said.
The enquires relate to an application to the County Council for the rezoning of a large parcel of land on the outskirts of Dungarvan from agricultural to light industrial and residential, and allegations that a developer offered incentives to people involved in the planning process in an effort to get approval (a decision in the matter has yet to be made).
On Tuesday, the Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, intervened in the situation and officials from his Department wrote to Waterford County Council with a specific request that they would not proceed with a variation to the County Development Plan by rezoning certain lands. Department sources said the Minister could, if he wished, block any changes by invoking Section 31 of the Planning and Development Act if the local authority failed to agree to his request.
However, also on Tuesday, County Waterford’s Mayor, Billy Kyne, and Manager, Ray O’Dwyer, issued a joint statement downplaying newspaper reports about the garda investigation.
The gardai have interviewed most if not all members of the County Council on the issue but, in their statement, the Mayor and Manager said the gardai had advised them that the investigation did not concern any of the councillors, nor any member of the Council’s planning staff.
The statement went on to say the Council was co-operating fully with the gardai and, urging that the investigation be concluded as speedily as possible.
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It added that, despite ‘this setback’, the Council members and staff remained committed to ongoing development and job creation in the county.
Another prominent representative told this newspaper he was surprised but not bothered by being questioned by gardai as he had noting at all to hide. However, he said he knew that some of his equally innocent colleagues had been quite upset by the garda visits and that, in the light of Tuesday’s statement, one wondered why they had been questioned in the first place.
The enquiry is being led by Garda Superintendent Tom O’Grady who was unavailable when this newspaper tried to contact him before going to press with our first edition. We wanted to invite him to verify aspects of the statement made by the Mayor and Manager.
The eight-month investigation commenced after local Fine Gael Dail Deputy John Deasy passed on information given to him by a member of the public. Beyond confirming that and pointing out that the details given to him were of ‘an extremely serious nature’, Mr. Deasy declined to comment this week.
It is understood that, as part of their initial enquiries, the gardai spoke informally to the councillors in an effort to ascertain if the developers at the centre of the allegation, or their agents, offered them incentives to vote ‘favourably’. The gardai are believed to have asked if the councillors were offered foreign trips or were given pledges of investments in local projects, if they supported the planning application.
The investigation marks the latest in a series of allegations involving the County Council. In 2005, all of the Council members were spoken to informally by gardai when a complaint about alleged planning corruption was made to the gardai. That allegation related to suspected irregularities with Part V contributions by building developers.
Part V planning contributions are payments made by developers to local authorities in lieu of providing social and affordable housing as part of a development.
Separately, one former employee is currently facing charges relating to allegations of corruption in the awarding of a building contract. He last appeared at Dungarvan District Court on March 11 and was to appear again on Tuesday of this week when a date was to be fixed for hearing.