Trust fears town-centre amenity has been lost to Westport community
TWENTY years after Westport Civic Trust (the Trust) started a campaign to save the old Bank of Ireland Garden as a public amenity, the heritage site has been sold to a private bidder for €500,000, The Mayo News can reveal. That figure is more than double the amount (€240,000) of its reserve price when it was first listed for auction – but withdrawn at the eleventh hour – less than two years ago, in December 2017. In receivership for some time, the town-centre site on the North Mall includes a walled garden and listed outbuildings in a state of dereliction.
Despite the fact that the Trust had an ongoing fundraising campaign to secure the site as a public garden for the townspeople, the soaring price for the property ultimately proved prohibitive.
Speaking to The Mayo News last night, Ms Michelle Hughes, the chairwoman of the trust, said: “A major concern is that under the existing County Development Plan, the garden and its outbuildings is currently listed as a protected structure, due to its heritage significance. However, the new County Development Plan 2020 onwards will allow persons to submit proposals. We are hoping that this protected designation will continue, since to see this space lost to development would be so disappointing.” Noting that National Heritage Week is currently underway, she added: “Erosion of our heritage is particularly pertinent for the week that is in it.”
Ms Hughes also said that a key objective of the trust was ‘to encourage engagement by the community in the heritage of the town and engagement with the planning process as the town evolved’. “As a heritage town, fostering community engagement was seen as essential to justifying the ‘heritage town’ status of Westport,” she said.
She also confirmed that the trust was given little notice of the auction but still attended in good faith. “As of now the only information we have is that a solicitor secured the property on behalf of a client. We believe that the sale is still in process. As an organisation we are extremely disappointed that this town-centre space may be lost to the Westport community forever,” Ms Hughes continued.
She thanked everyone who had pledged money and supported the trust’s campaign.
IT had been expected that developer Paul Michels, who has purchased a plethora of Westport properties that were in receivership, would have a keen interest in acquiring the property, since he owns the adjacent former Dunnes Stores building on Castlebar Street. Indeed, his representative was the main bidder at the July 19 auction by O’Donnellan and Joyce in a Galway City hotel. However, bidding stopped at €410,000, €90,000 short of the reserve price of €500,000.
The selling agents described the site as comprising ‘a derelict commercial building which is situated on [circa] 1.1 acre site located in the heart of Westport town. The building requires significant refurbishment throughout. There is a large yard to the rear of the building, the property would be an ideal investment for redevelopment subject to [planning permission] due to its prominent location, in the very busy town of Westport’.
However, any development would be complicated by the fact that the curtilage and structure of this Georgian-era garden and outbuildings are listed on the Record of Protected Structures in the Westport Town and Environs Development Plan.
A spokeswoman for O’Donnellan and Joyce confirmed yesterday the property was bought in trust for a client by a solicitor after the auction, for the full €500,000.
When contacted also by The Mayo News yesterday, local Cllr Peter Flynn said: “I was aware of the plans of a local developer for the Castlebar Street–North Mall development and I understand he was sympathetic to the significance of the heritage of the garden and how important it would have been as a civic space.
“I hope whoever has purchased the site will appreciate that it is zoned amenity and it is a protected structure,” Flynn added.
ONCE a dower house owned by the Browne family of Westport House, the adjacent former Bank of Ireland building, dates from circa 1809. The Bank of Ireland took over the property circa 1838 and the manager and his family lived in the house and used the garden. Townspeople still remember buying vegetables there, or sneaking in, as children, to steal apples. The bank building itself was extensively refurbished by Westport Credit Union, the current owner.
The former dower house is one of the most important Georgian structures in Westport and is listed as a Protected Structure of National Importance. The courtyard buildings are also listed as Protected Structures of Regional Importance, according to Westport Civic Trust.
Westport Civic Trust was established in 1999 after it discovered that the Bank of Ireland was selling the garden and courtyard buildings separately from the house. At the time, the garden was zoned ‘Town Development’. After the Bank of Ireland sold it to a developer, the trust began a campaign – lobbying Government ministers and the local authority – ‘to ensure the garden’s protection’.
The new Planning and Development Act of 2000 stipulated that any grounds attendant to a protected structure (its curtilage) were, by extension, protected.