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Litigation and allegations of wrongdoing dog the garden county as a motion to downzone Newtownmountkennedy data-centre lands is defeated

A controversial proposal to de-zone lands for a data centre in county Wicklow has been defeated by local councillors. The successful motion to retain the zoning was proposed by Councillor Pat Vance.

According to the council chief executive and the Department of the Environment the zoning of the lands at Newtownmountkennedy, was “piecemeal and random.”

However, a proposal to de-zone the lands was roundly rejected by councillors at a meeting on Monday 4th July in the latest twist in a story which has even seen unsubstantiated allegations of malfeasance directed at members and officials of the council and other state agencies over recent years.

As reported in Village, the manner in which the attempts by businessman, Brian McDonagh, to develop a data centre on the Newtownmountkennedy lands have been obstructed are nothing short of extraordinary.

McDonagh and his brothers first obtained permission to build a data centre on the 81-acre site on the edge of the N11 at Kilpedder, Newtown in July 2010, but fell victim to unwelcome manoeuvres by members and officials of Wicklow County Council, An Bord Pleanála and the National Roads Authority when they sought to proceed with the development.

When they first applied for permission to develop a business park on the site in 2008 it was zoned for business, science and technology but within months their lands were de-zoned to agricultural use while lands immediately on the other side of the N11 were zoned for industrial use under a new Local Area Plan.

Site for data centre, Newtownmountkennedy
Site for data centre,
Newtownmountkennedy

When they threatened the council with legal action over the de-zoning the McDonaghs were invited to a meeting in the Ramada Hotel in Wicklow by then chairman of the council planning committee, Pat Vance, where it was suggested that a proposal for a data centre on their lands would be considered favourably.

In July 2010, the council granted permission to their new company, Ecologic Data Centre (EDC) to build a data centre but this was met with an appeal against planning by the National Roads Authority (NRA). After some bitter exchanges, the NRA withdrew its objection but not before serious financial costs had been incurred by the McDonaghs.

In the Spring of 2011, An Bord Pleanála upheld an objection to the proposal from a local landowner but this was subsequently overturned when the McDonaghs proved in the High Court that the board had not acted fairly or properly in the appeal process. In a landmark decision, the Supreme Court upheld the decision following an unsuccessful appeal by ABP the following year.

Since then Brian McDonagh has been forced from control of the company due to the accumulating financial difficulties caused by the incessant delays to the project. He is advising new owners on an energy recovery and data centre project. Meanwhile, other data centres have been sprouting up around the country in places that do not compare in terms of road, traffic, power and fibre optic access with the Newtown site.

His experience including the bizarre manner in which his site was first zoned, then de-zoned and re-zoned again is the subject of one of the series of complaints concerning the administration of local government in county Wicklow that were sent to former environment minister, Alan Kelly and are still under consideration by his successor, Simon Coveney.

Others include the manner in which various lands were acquired under compulsory purchase orders and others zoned at Charlesland, county Wicklow to the benefit of developers Sean Mulryan and Sean Dunne and their joint venture Zapi Ltd. The role played by Councillor Vance, who met privately with the two developers in advance of crucial planning decisions for the major residential scheme near Greystones in 2002 and 2003 are the subject of other complaints by local auctioneer, Gabriel Dooley.

Last month, Vance was cleared of any wrongdoing after a lengthy investigation by the council ethics registrar into a complaint by Dooley that the councillor had failed to mention a house he acquired at Saran Wood in Bray in January 2003.

The ethics registrar determined that Vance and his wife Mary had merely guaranteed a mortgage taken out with AIB. She accepted that the purchaser of the property was their son, Peter Vance, who is an employee of the bank. In her report the registrar, Helen Purcell, said she was unable to obtain the original mortgage for the property at 15 Saran Wood during her year-long investigation but accepted the veracity of other conveyancing documents describing Peter Vance as the purchaser. He sold the property in his sole name to a third party in September 2015.

By Frank Connolly