An Bord Pleanála is due to rule this month on a roadway "bulldozed" into Mahon valley in the Comeragh mountain range without planning permission.
A local community group says it was led to believe by Waterford County Council that the work – part of plans to extend an existing walking route – was “exempted development”.
Mountaineering Ireland (MI), an umbrella group for hillwalkers and climbers, is critical of Waterford County Council's approach. It has questioned why the local authority also awarded €75,000 for the work without attaching conditions.
The Comeraghs are, as guide writer Declan McGrath puts it, “rugged, rocky and inspiring” due to the severe glacial activity which has produced “contorted ridges . . . steep and gentle slopes . . . cracked and twisted cliffs”.
Landmarks within the State’s most southerly special area of conservation include the Coumshingaun formation and nearby Crotty’s Stable, named after Waterford’s famous highwayman William Crotty.
Coum Mahon and Mahon Falls are popular with walkers, and Comeragh Community Development Group (CCDG) began purchasing land for a Crough wood walk extending from Mahon bridge up by the river.
The first part of the walk through Crough wood is less than a kilometre, and the second phase is almost complete,
A section of roadway almost 4km long for the third phase was bulldozed in the Mahon valley last year, but CCDG says it was temporary to allow for materials to be delivered.
Mountaineering Ireland sought a meeting with Waterford County Council, and pointed out that it required planning permission and an environmental impact assessment.
The case has now been referred to An Bord Pleanála, which is due to rule on May 16th on whether the road construction is or is not exempted development.
CCDG chairman Declan Mulhearne is very upset at what he describes as a genuine misunderstanding. He said local farmers who are loath to deal directly with a local authority are happy to deal with a community development group which takes responsibility for a walking route.
This is confirmed by farmers including
, who sold a section of his land to the group for the walk’s second phase, and hillwalker and landowner
Comeragh resident and local historian Sean Murphy said the initial work in the Mahon valley was "done in good faith".
The group, which grew out of a “Comeragh clean-up” 17 years ago, is closely wedded to its landscape, and some of its members actively opposed Eirgrid’s now abandoned plan to upgrade the electricity grid with a network of pylons through the mountains.
“A route like this is something farmers favour because too many city people come out in thick fog or with terriers off leads during the lambing season,” Mr Murphy said. “The big problem is that people don’t understand how the countryside works.”
Mountaineering Ireland says it is willing to meet the local development group, and regrets that the community was badly advised.
Waterford County Council has confirmed it awarded funding, and says the case is before An Bord Pleanála.
Mountaineering Ireland says issues like this, and a recent Wicklow Way court case, highlight the “fragmentation” of responsibility for outdoor recreation.
Back in 2004, then minister Éamon Ó Cuív established Comhairle na Tuaithe to work on a national countryside recreation strategy. However, both the "comhairle" and that strategy are being "reviewed".
Last month the State Claims Agency lodged an appeal against a Circuit Civil Court ruling which had awarded €40,000 to a hillwalker who sustained injuries when she fell on a rotting boardwalk on the Wicklow Way.