Meeting on Tara plan abandoned as anger boils over
An information meeting called in Navan on Monday night to discuss the controversial landscape conservation plan for the Tara-Skryne valley and surrounding areas had to be abandoned amid chaotic scenes which included slow hand-clapping and heated confrontation between people of opposing views. The event in Navan's Ardboyne Hotel had been hosted by the forward planning department of Meath County Council and hundreds of local residents of the area turned out to what they expected would be a public exposition of the council's plans. However, when they found that the event's format amounted to a display of boards outlining how the council had come to a decision regarding the boundaries of the proposed landscape conservation area, serious discontent broke out among the attendance. Those gathered in the hotel expressed concern about planning restrictions and de-exemptions proposed in the plan, in addition to the extent of the area taken in by the proposed plan, which stretches from Walterstown to Bective, Dunsany and Kilmessan, across to Skryne and Tara. These boundaries were determined by the council in conjunction with workshops in Navan involving experts in the area as well as local community groups. Residents and landowners questioned the qualifications of those deciding the boundaries, some of whom had suggested including areas like Curraha and Navan town centre, according to the council presentation. A number of planning applications for houses in the area have been refused by the council on the basis that they are "premature" pending adoption of the conservation plan. This has angered many people in the area who consider the concultation process as a "box ticking" exercise. A number of locals in the affected area have complained of a lack of clarity as to what the plan is meant to achieve. Six council planning officials had made themselves available for what they considered would be an opportunity for people to have one-to-one discussions about the plans. The large crowd, however, expected a detailed presentation and public question and answer session and grew restless when this was not forthcoming. Slow hand-clapping developed and Meath East Fine Gael TD Shane McEntee intervened to ask the attendees to give the planners a five-minute chance to prepare a presentation similar to the one given to elected council members last week when a question and answer session took place. The councillors are to meet again to discuss the issue at a special meeting on 12th October. Following the Fine Gael TD's intervention, one man attempted to address the meeting but was shouted down. The six planners, on hearing the uproar in the function room as they were about to re-enter, decided against entering and left the hotel. In a statement to the Meath Chronicle yesterday (Tuesday), the council strenuously defended its decision to hold the meeting in a particular format. It said it had been advertised widely as an information meeting and not a public meeting. The purpose of the event - planned to go on from 7.30pm to 10pm - was to give an opportunity to people who still had questions or concerns about the draft plan to meet one-to-one with forward planning staff to discuss the proposal, it said. "It is the council's experience that many people are reluctant to stand up and speak at a public meeting and an information evening gives those people a chance to ask questions and air their views in a less intimidating setting," the council said. A council spokesman qualified the word "intimidating" as referring to people's reluctance to speak publicly and not to the atmosphere at the meeting. "A large crowd turned up and it became apparent that some were expecting a different type of event, including an expectation that there would be a public question and answer session. A number vented their frustration at the staff present. In addition, a small number of individuals appeared to have attended for the purpose of disrupting the meeting and there was a heated confrontation between people of opposing views," the council added. It said its senior executive planner had judged that, as a result of the ongoing disruption, there was little or nothing that could be achieved by continuing the event and she made a decision to leave with her staff. It said that the management of the council supported this decision. "The council is concerned that six members of staff trying to do their jobs were subjected to a high level of inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour from a small number of people," the council added. Deputy McEntee also issued a statement following the meeting in which he said there were "major misunderstandings" as to the manner in which the meeting was to be conducted. "Local residents were left confused and angry when it became apparent there was not going to be a presentation or a Q&A session. The meeting was soon adjourned," he said. He is arranging a further meeting in the Ardboyne Hotel on Monday next at 8pm when members of the public will be addressed by local councillors and public representatives from the Tara-Skryne area. There will also be a guest speaker from the Boyne Valley area. An invitatiom to attend the meeting has also gone out to Meath County Council. Cllr Shane Cassells said: "Quite simply, there should have been somebody from the council with a microphone explaining what this plan was about to the people present. People's expectations coming into the Ardboyne were that they would have the opportunity to engage with professional planners and ask them questions about what the plan would mean for them and their families. "It was evident from what was developing in the room from early on that people were not happy to simply walk around and look at information boards. They expected a briefing from the council on what the plan was all about. I call on the county manager to organise such a meeting for the community and for him and the planning staff to sit at a top table and talk to the people, which is what they deserve." Almost 350 submissions on the plan have been received from members of the public and organisations.