An ambitious plan to build a £600,000 four-lane bowling alley and 60-seater restaurant some miles from Omagh has split members of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council's planning committee over whether such an out-of-town development would affect the future viability of the town centre.
However, despite differences of opinion councillors voted to overturn the recommendation of planning officials, who had been proposing that the bowling alley should be refused permission to proceed.
The proposal, which was in the name of Sharon Booth, is to be based at the Broadford Road, next to the Mellon Fun Farm, which Mrs Booth and her husband, David, have been running since 2013.
At last Wednesday's meeting in Omagh, Darren Lowther from the council's planning department, said the recommendation was to refuse permission subject to seven reasons in that it was contrary to various planning policy regulations.
He added the applicant had submitted a master plan showing the future development of the site, where a football pitch and various other works were proposed, but there was no application for these currently with the council.
The applicant had submitted information showing that there were no alternative sites within Omagh town centre and this, along with the location beside the Fun Farm, justified the countryside location.
However, these had been rejected by the council's planning section saying such alternative development opportunities existed at buildings in John Street, a site opposite Grange Park; the former Naturelle factory site, Mountjoy Road; the former PSNI station opposite the council headquarters; the former Smith Furniture Store, Bankmore Industrial Estate and a since expired outline planning permission had previously been granted for a bowling alley behind Molly Sweeney's on the Gortin Road.
Mr Lowther added that since the last meeting more information had also been submitted in relation to the proposal's economic benefits and consideration of alternative development opportunities, but these had been rejected as they remained contrary to planning policy.
"The economic benefits have been considered by officers, but these would be provided by the development of the alternative sites, so there's no benefit from the site that's being proposed so for these reasons the application is contrary to the policy and the recommendation is to refuse as before," he said.
The agent for the applicant, David McKinley, who was afforded speaking rights, rejected what the council official saw as opportunities for developing the bowling alley inside the town.
"Mrs Booth is spending in the region of £600,000 with the materials more than likely coming from P. McDermott, the local builder’s merchant, who is building it all and all the building elements will be sourced locally. The economic proposal indicates wages of £25,000 in year one and each year thereafter in the range of £75,000 to £80,000 to maintain four local staff."
He added the project would also generate a significant contribution to the council's rates with an estimated £10,000 a year predicted in consultation with the rates office. He also pointed out that the figures hadn't included the site value. This was costing her nothing, but it would have a significant effect if she was to buy or lease within the town centre.
Mr McKinley said he had been through what the council's planning service had identified as potential sites, but none were suitable, he claimed.
He added he had gone through all the suggested alternative locations like those mentioned and others, but none were big enough to include a 25 metre lane. He said they had other issues too within existing buildings, including a need to lower ground floors to provide for the return of a ball once thrown.
He added he questioned whether an application should have to bear the cost of buying the property or leasing within the town centre when she had a sitting site which had no other issues such as road or environmental considerations.
"We have looked at every opportunity and we can't get it to fit within the town centre," he said.
Councillors Stephen McCann and Chris Smyth made representations on behalf of the applicant, supported by councillors Allan Rainey, Barry McNally, Brian McCaffrey and Barry Doherty.
Indeed Cllr Rainey said he felt he could support the application because of the agent's input and the fact the vacant properties in the town centre "were developing into an eyesore". He added he felt the new building beside the fun farm would enhance the area and they would complement each other and proposed they grant the permission for the new development. This was seconded by Cllr Barry McNally.
The application also prompted a warning from the council's head of planning, Deirdre McSorley.
She said she had concerns if they went with an approval and the impact it would have on the town centre.
"It is clearly a town centre use. We have just launched our Draft Local Development Plan where we have a focus on town centre first and improving the vitality and viability of our towns. As part of that plan we also carried out a retail impact study and survey and out of it the people of Omagh told us they wanted a 10 pin bowling alley in Omagh."
She added they would still get an investment whether it was in the country or in town in terms of the building, rates and employment. There would also be a spin-off for the town if it was located there in terms of people using shops, restaurants and bars which wouldn't happen if it was located outside the town centre.
She added Mr Lowther's report indicated the available sites in town were all capable of taking a 10-pin bowling alley with 25 metre lanes, but admitted there may be some adjustment needed in terms of where the restaurant was located.
"I would have concerns if we continue to approve town centre development out in the countryside. It's going to impact on our town centres and all those derelict buildings which have been lying there for a while now are not going to be developed. As Cllr Rainey said, they are eyesores and we would like to see them developed," she said.
Cllr Mary Garrity said while they were all agreed this was a great project, the question was whether it should be located in the rural area or in the town centre and there were arguments for both sides, but she had great reservations about a knock-on effect.
"We're going to have a lot more vacant sites in Omagh coming up soon as well. I'm thinking of the businesses within the town that pay high rates who would love the injection of such a business like this to have a knock-on effect and greatly welcomed. I know this applicant owns the land but if we let people who own land all over the district put what they want on it because it's viable in their eyes, we set a precedent that's very dangerous going forward. The town centre is what this council supports."
Cllr Brian McCaffrey said he understood both sides of the argument but added if buildings were sitting over a lengthy period of time and nobody was investing in them there was a good reason for that.
"That's because they're not economical to invest in and I think we need to get our heads around that regardless of where the planning policy currently is. The reality is people won't invest in what they see as not being worthy of that level of investment that would be needed."
He added they had to look at what people wanted in an area and from discussion that day it appeared people wanted a bowling alley.
"I expect with the level of demand it won't matter much if it's four or five miles outside the town or whether it's in the town centre, people will use it."
Cllr Robert Irvine said he agreed with Cllr Garrity in that they could create a vacuum in town centres, but felt he had to come down in favour of the officer’s decision and proposed a refusal.
He urged agents with similar proposals in the future for a development that was not straightforward and went against several of the policies to show what their application was an exemption.
"More work has to be done by the agents to prove their case. In this instance a certain amount of that work has been done, but not enough in my opinion. It's not just a case of coming here and dangling a carrot in front of us as councillors that this is economic development which is going to being in more rates and employment, but we're cutting across all the policies and we haven't got a case in my opinion made to do that with regard to the policies, more work needs to be done and that's why I'm proposing a refusal," he said.
In a vote the application proved successful with seven councillors voting to reject the planners’ objections and allow the development, while four voted for the planners’ recommendation.
The decision of the planning committee will now have to be ratified by a full meeting of Fermanagh and Omagh District Council early next month.