Councillors in Wicklow vote today on rezoning
Mrs Maureen Gelletlie, 80-year-old proprietor of Hunter's Hotel, is wondering whether the King and Queen of Sweden will ever come back if this coaching inn ends up on the edge of a "high-tech" industrial estate, which is what Wicklow county councillors have in mind.
The Swedish royals have stayed at Hunter's four times, always in the same room. Like so many others they were taken by the hotel's old-world charm, its antique furniture, uneven floors and well-worn tiles, but particularly by the beautiful garden facing south towards the Vartry river. "Ladies and gentlemen will not and others must not pull the flowers in this garden," a famous sign sternly reads.
Hunter's Hotel is a place apart. Built around 1720 as a coaching inn on what was then the main Dublin-Wexford road, it has long since been by-passed. The approach from Ashford is a narrow, unspoiled country road fringed by hedgerows, trees and the granite walls of two estates.
Mrs Gelletlie says it hasn't changed for at least 120 years. "People come here from cities like London and Manchester or wherever just to walk around the garden and look at the flowers or to see the night sky without any floodlighting, really, the sort of things we take for granted". Not for long, the Gelletlies fear. Last January, without any notice, Wicklow County Council agreed to rezone 150 acres of land just south of the hotel for the "option" of developing an industrial estate containing up to a million square feet and providing jobs for between 3,000 and 5,000 people.
This proposal is being promoted by the land's owners, Mr Robert Furlong, Mr Des Douglas and two brothers, Mr John Byrne and Mr Neville Byrne. They stand to make a fortune if the council votes to confirm the draft zoning proposed by Mr Dick Roche TD (FF).
According to Mr Tom Gelletlie, who helps his mother run Hunter's Hotel, agricultural land locally sells for £3,000 and £5,000 an acre. "Zoned industrial, it could be worth £100,000 an acre, maybe even £150,000. So we're talking about a huge speculative enterprise."
The promoters call their scheme the Newrath Business Campus and have engaged an architect and a chartered surveyor based in Ballisodare, Co Sligo, to develop the concept which they describe as "world class". They say it would be modelled on City West on the edge of Dublin.
It would have "residential-style" units on large sites with "water features, landscaping, extensive tree and shrub planting on the curtilage and to create a screened low-density theme within the campus, earth-shaping to provide discreet parking, all to a standard consistent with the surrounding countryside."
IDA Ireland has told the council it would "greatly welcome" this development because there is a "dearth of land" in the area for industrial development.
It is also supported by Wicklow Chamber of Commerce, the Rathnew Development Association and the council's chairman, Mr Liam Kavanagh TD (Labour), a one-time minister for the environment who sees it as "a major possibility for employment" in the area.
However, it is opposed by senior council officials, including the county manager, the county engineer and acting senior executive planner. They maintain the rezoning would be piecemeal and premature, as Rathnew lacks adequate road, water and sewerage infrastructure.
Hunter's Hotel and other opponents of the rezoning, such as Birdwatch Ireland, want the decision deferred until the whole issue can be examined in the context of a local plan for the Rathnew area. "That's expected in the next six months, so there really isn't any rush", says Mr Gelletlie.
But Mr Donal Dunne, of Hassett and Fitzsimons, who is acting for the landowners, said Wicklow was notorious for delays.
Mr Dunne conceded that his clients would probably not be developing the "Newrath Business Campus". They had committed themselves to taking it to the next stage, a planning application and environmental impact study.
If permission is granted, it seems likely that the land will be sold. The owners are anxious to have the principle of its future use determined now, rather than later. Their brochure also assumes that work on the proposed N11 bypass of Ashford and Rathnew, which will bisect the main approach road to Hunter's Hotel, will start "within 18 months".
However, Mr Gelletlie maintains that it could take three years or more to upgrade and extend Rathnew's sewage treatment system to cope with major industrial and perhaps residential development in the area. "The councillors can vote to rezone this land at any stage in the future", he says. The Gelletlies concede that the proximity of an industrial estate, its buildings glimpsed from their own garden, would be a business opportunity. "But at what price? Do we want to despoil the whole area just for the sake of a few extra pounds? That's not the sort of business we're in", Mr Gelletlie says.
The rezoning is also opposed by Mr William Power, proprietor of Tinakilly House on the other side of Rathnew and president of the Irish Hotels Federation. In a letter to the county council, he said Ireland's topography was its great tourism asset and this must not be destroyed by hasty, opportunistic planning decisions.