Al Fitzgerald, from Knocklong, reveals struggle to build homes during housing crisis
A COUNTY Limerick builder who has spent the last four years trying to build affordable houses says he has been “rocked” by his dealings with various different bodies.
And he says that his experiences with the planning process “quite clearly demonstrates to me as a member of the public that there needs to be serious reform in the planning process”.
Al Fitzgerald, from Knocklong, said: “I hope anyone with the same aspirations as me to deliver proper planning and housing to their local community never experiences what I have gone through.”
Mr Fitzgerald said this interview is his personal response to articles in the Limerick Leader on January 4 and 11.
He says he has spent around €120,000 to date with very little to show for it.
Mr Fitzgerald has called for “a level playing field for private individuals and public bodies as we try to build homes in the midst of a housing crisis.”
His story begins in 2015 when he purchased the old creamery site in Knocklong. There was a dereliction notice on the 4.9 acre site.
“It was being used as a dumping ground and there was anti-social behaviour including vandalism. The place was forgotten about despite it being in the middle of a village. I have spent €70,000 plus clearing and developing the site which is adjacent to a council estate, Station Close.
“I cleared 66 hazardous trees overlooking Station Close in which I obtained a tree felling licence. The rubbish included open tanks, steel, domestic rubbish, tyres etc. I then reseeded the site,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
In 2016, he began the process of trying to build 12 houses - three and two bed semi-detached houses - and an astroturf pitch for local sports clubs. Mr Fitzgerald asked the council if he could use the entrance into Station Close for the 12 houses.
“A council engineer met me on site at the Station Close entrance. He said, ‘No’. He advised there were ‘insufficient sightlines at this entrance’. He said, ‘I cannot put anymore traffic in it as it is a health and safety issue’,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
He says he was also advised by the council that “there would be no development to the rear of the site because the sewer capacity was full and this limited development at the front”.
“They said previous planning applications were refused by the council on these grounds,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
After those two knockbacks he went back to the drawing board.
“I submitted an application to Irish Water for connections for a 30-bed nursing home and 22 two-bedroom retirement units. Irish Water looked favourably on 50% of the development and gave me a letter to proceed,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
He also says he got planning permission for a new entrance to the old creamery site from the main road in which he had to achieve 90 linear metre sight lines.
He adds that he had to provide a letter of consent of the adjoining landowner which the council requested under further information.
“I now had the go-ahead from Irish Water that there was sewer capacity and I had an entrance into my site so I didn’t need access by Station Close which I was told was a non-runner,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
He said he proposed a retirement village to the council in which any elderly person currently living in a three-bedroom council house could move to the retirement village and thus free up that house to a family that needs it.
“They had no interest. I then proposed to the council to come out to the site to see what we could do in a joint venture. They didn’t come out after numerous emails and phone calls,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
He then got in touch with Co-Operative Housing Ireland who are supported by the Department of Housing.
“I made a verbal agreement with them to be the customer for 15 affordable homes if I could get planning,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
He reapplied to Irish Water for connection for 15 houses and it was granted.
“I went back to the council and had a pre-planning meeting for the 15 houses on foot of Irish Water’s letter. The council supported it,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
The council granted planning in December 2018 despite objections for 14 houses via the new entrance off the main road. It then went to An Bord Pleanala.
“To the amazement of me and my design team they ruled against it working from a superceded EPA report carried out in 2011, which was obsolete, in relation to sanitary services in Knocklong. This was overruled by Irish Water - a State body formed in 2013 - who were supportive of the development after a detailed review carried out on site of available sewer capacity.
“I couldn’t believe An Bord Pleanala overruled Irish Water and the council’s decision. It has left me at my wits’ end. The decision completely devalued my land following substantial investment. I have spent €49,500 in professional fees and €70,000 in site development,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
Last year, he learned that the council was planning to build 12 houses in Station Close.
“I emailed them to tell them that I had previously been told by a council engineer no more traffic can access that entrance due to it not having adequate sightlines. Following a series of meetings with senior council officials an agreement was made in relation to delivery of 19 homes for Knocklong - 12 for the council in Station Close and seven by me in the old creamery - as seen in the Part 8 application. It included linking both estates by road and provide services for seven homes which I currently have in planning.
“To my amazement when they lodged the planning application it quite clearly showed the primary entrance was via Station Close. It had been agreed verbally that my constructed entrance, which achieves sight lines, was to be the primary entrance.
“The minimum sight lines are 90 metres on both sides. That is the standard national requirement. If you turn left exiting Station Close there is an Irish Rail bridge that was built in 1810,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
The council's Part 8 application for 12 houses at Station Close was passed at the December meeting of the Cappamore-Kilmallock district meeting following a deferral in November. Mr Fitzgerald thanked councillors who have asked questions regarding the sightlines.
“It is one rule for the council and one rule for me. It quite clearly demonstrates to me as a member of the public that there needs to be serious reform in the planning process. There needs to be a level playing field for private individuals and public bodies as we try to build homes in the midst of a housing crisis,” said Mr Fitzgerald.
He says this has been an enormous financial challenge.
“I have been left to finance my design team. Who will reimburse me on foot of these broken decisions? My architect told me he has had developments that went for planning in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018 built and I have nothing built yet.
“From my experience and my planning journey there needs to be more consistency. Since I was refused by An Bord Pleanala in May 2019 Irish Water carried out a third inspection and gave me a letter for the connection of 17 houses. At this point I would like to invite all sitting councillors and TDs to assess my concerns presented in this article and bring this Part 8 application before a full council meeting which I would like to attend," concluded Mr Fitzgerald.
There was no response by the council to a media query from the Limerick Leader.