By Frank Connolly
Yet another storm is brewing in Wicklow following a decision by county council officials to dispose of its freehold on a significant commercial property on the Bray seafront. A number of elected members were shocked to learn in recent months of the disposal for just €10,000 of the freehold on the property where the upmarket Barracuda restaurant is located on the town’s famous promenade.
At their monthly meeting on Monday (7th September) councillors were informed that the decision to sell the freehold was made following legal advice which suggested that the holder of the lease had a right to purchase the fee simple on the property.
The leaseholder, Jim Flynn, held a 250-year lease on the property which was granted by Bray Urban District Council in 2004. This was an extension of a 65-year lease first granted by the council to the previous owners in 1991 which, council officials said, was confirmed by a vote of UDC members in 1998 as required under legislation.
When the details of the unusually lengthy 250-year lease emerged several councillors were annoyed to discover that there were no records of the 1998 decision upon which it was apparently grounded or of any discussions surrounding what appeared to be the extremely generous terms given to the then leaseholders.
The property was developed as an aquarium under the 1991 lease and more recently by Flynn and others as the popular Barracuda restaurant and a coffee shop. Flynn has plans to open a gastropub on the site but when he sought to acquire the necessary licence found that there were questions surrounding the leasehold which he then decided to purchase outright.
Ignoring calls from some councillors for the Garda or the Attorney General to be called in to examine the controversial disposal of council property, without any evidence of the necessary agreement by elected members, either this year or back in 1998, the acting county manager Bryan Doyle insisted that everything was above board and that the decision was based on sound legal advice.
He said that elected councillors had made the original decision to allow the now dissolved Bray UDC to grant the lease back in 1991. He also said there was a notice of disposal made by a vote of elected members to extend the lease in 1998 but there are no records of any such decision. The county manager confirmed that council staff are still looking for the file containing the 1998 notice of disposal. It was this decision on which the 250-year-lease arrangement was based in 2004.
The agreement was signed on behalf of the council by then town manager, Des O’Brien and then Cathaoirleach and current Labour TD, Anne Ferris. The terms of agreement required the lease to pay the UDC €100 per annum. The agendas of the 1998 Bray UDC meetings, which could establish whether the necessary notice of disposal existed, are also missing.
Doyle warned that if the council had not disposed of the property to Flynn it could be exposed to a costly claim for compensation. The row was compounded by the revelation from the chairman, councillor John Ryan of Fine Gael, that he is a partner of Flynn’s in an unrelated consultancy business ‘Great Place to Work’.
He stood down from the chair while the Barracuda matter was discussed and told Village that he had not been present at a meeting earlier this summer when the controversy first arose.
Ryan said that he accepted there were genuine concerns over the disposal and fears that other valuable council owned lands could be transferred into private hands for little or no consideration and for that reason had allowed the matter on to the agenda for discussion at the most recent meeting.
“I declared the fact that I shared a directorship with Jim Flynn and I have informed the ethics registrar of the council to that effect. I have no interest in the Barracuda restaurant”, Ryan said.
Wicklow County Council told Village it was preparing a report for the Members on the matter which will be considered at a Council meeting scheduled for the end of September.
The row is the latest in a series of controversies surrounding the disposal of properties by Wicklow County Council to private interests.
Officials in the Department of the Environment are continuing their investigation into the granting of valuable council lands to a company controlled by developers Sean Dunne and Sean Mulryan, in 2003 and 2004, to facilitate their massive Charlesland residential scheme near Greystones.
Wicklow auctioneer, Gabriel Dooley, has submitted an extensive file to the department outlining what he claims were improper dealings between the prominent developers and elected members and officials of the council.
Elected councillors did not vote on what the council has described as an ‘exchange of easements’ with the developers when lands were provided for road access to the Charlesland development.
The easements were exchanged for €10, according to the contracts agreed at the time.
In July, Mulryan told the Oireachtas banking inquiry that he was not aware of the details of the land transfers and said it was a matter for the county manager at the time. •