AN Bord Pleanala “erred” in granting planning permission for the contentious €100m Horizon Mall development on the Dublin Road, the High Court in Dublin was told this Wednesday.
Legal representatives of the Crescent Shopping Centre, who are taking the case to prevent a competing development from going ahead, argued that the board of the national planning authority took a “narrow view” in this case and failed to take into account retail strategies in the region, as well as the importance of the vitality of Limerick city centre.
Opening the case this Wednesday in court room 14 in the Four Courts, Garrett Simmons, senior counsel for Arthur Cox solicitors in Dublin, argued that while the decision of the local authority, Limerick City and County Council, was “exemplary” in refusing planning for the amended plans, it is the decision of An Bord Pleanala they take issue with.
He said the council were correct in deeming that the altered plans for the site should have been treated as a new standalone application, but this view was not taken by An Bord Pleanala.
The revised plans – down from 73,142 square metres to 63,712 – include two major anchor tenants, as well as 37 smaller outlets, down from 75 units previously.
If built, it is expected to include Limerick’s first Marks & Spencer and its largest store outside of Dublin. M&S was initially due to take 70,000 square feet of retail space in Horizon Mall, previously known as Parkway Valley, but that has risen to 100,000 square feet under the revised application.
The judicial review hearing is based on an objection by the South West Regional Shopping Centre Promotion Association Ltd and Stapleyside Company – both represented by Arthur Cox solicitors – against An Bord Pleanala, which granted permission for the divisive development earlier this year.
Both of the plaintiffs have vested interests in the Crescent Shopping Centre on the opposite side of the city’s suburbs, and argue that the proposed shopping centre could seriously hamper their trade, and potentially lead to job losses.
Mr Simons argued that the essence of this case rests on the intricacies of planning law, including the size of the development given its location outside the city, the status that one affords to a development plan, and the weight the board attached to the existing planning permission.
“The board has got its calibrations wrong and we say that is simply not allowed,” he told Ms Justice Costello.
He said the development is “no longer consistent” within the development plan and retail plan, which are allowed to evolve over time.
The plans, which date back to 2004, were granted planning in August 2006 under a different developer, and since then he said, two new development plans for the local area were introduced in 2010, while ministerial guidelines on retail planning were also issued in 2012.
Mr Simons added that the board “misunderstood its powers” and treated this as an amendment to a planning application, rather than a revision of planning permission.
He said there was no reference in the An Bord Pleanala report from the board, as opposed to its inspector, to the development plan for the area, “good, bad or indifferent”, nor to the impact it would have on Limerick city centre.
“The board effectively said we note your concerns by limiting its life to the existing permission,” he added.
While the development was granted planning by the then Limerick County Council, the amalgamated local authority rejected the altered and downscaled plans for the development, citing the effects it could have on businesses in the city centre.
But in its ruling An Bord Pleanala only granted the developer a short window of completion, until August 2016, to complete the mammoth development, which has been partially built, upholding the extension of time granted previously by Limerick County Council.
Mr Simons also noted that the “bare majority” of the national planning board decided to grant planning, and that while the size was reduced by over 10,000 square metres, down from over 70,000 square metres, the reduction in retail space was a small fraction of that.
He said the board took the view that the overall reduced size was “the lesser of two evils”.
During the course of his arguments over the coming days and next week, he intends to detail how the plans materially contravene the guidelines set out under the Retail Strategy for the Mid-West region, 2010-2016, the Limerick County Development Plan, and the Limerick City Development Plan, both for the same period.
Belfast based developer Suneil Sharma, who is behind the project, which could be bigger than the Crescent Shopping Centre if it is ever built, was among those in court for the hearing, which lasted just one hour this Wednesday afternoon.
It will be heard again on Thursday and this Friday, and may also run to next week, Ms Justice Costello noted.
Mr Sharma, who took over the development on the 15-acre from Liam Carroll’s Zoe group when that company collapsed, said he did not expect to give any evidence personally in the case, and said he would be making a comment in the coming weeks.
Fianna Fail deputy Willie O’Dea earlier said that if it is built it could turn Limerick city into a “ghost town”.
However, his party colleague, Niall Collins, has said in the past that he is not against the development, pointing to the 1,500 retail jobs it could create.
The 73-page report by An Bord Pleanala earlier this year stated that the development “would not seriously detract from the vitality and viability of Limerick city centre”, contrary to the view of Limerick Chamber and other business interests in the city which had lodged objections.
The development, which was first granted in July 2004, has been subject to numerous revisions and planning appeals over the past 11 years.
In fact it came before the then Limerick County Council - before it was amalgamated with the city - on six occasions.
The report also noted that a total of €2,590,922.15 has been already been paid to Limerick County Council as development contributions in relation to the permitted development.