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Clara residents oppose plans for Cowen's land

PLANS to demolish a public house and a residential dwelling owned by the family of finance minister Brian Cowen in order to construct an Euro18m mixed-use development on the two-acre site are being opposed by local residents in the town of Clara, Co Offaly.

A planning application for the construction of a residential and commercial centre which will contain office accommodation, underground car parking and a new pub on the Cowen land - which is zoned town centre - has been lodged with Offaly county council.

However, residents in the adjacent Green housing estate say 24 home owners will suffer a reduction in natural light and lose privacy if the three three-storey blocks are constructed in the manner outlined in the proposals. The inclusion of a 190-space underground car park along with a further 44 surface spaces will, the residents claim, lead to intolerable traffic congestion.

Cowen's pub is managed by Christy, the oldest of the Cowen brothers. The site also includes the Cowen family home along with three other residential properties.

"This is a huge issue for us, " says residents' spokesman Frank Moran. "All those extra cars will result in our estate being turned into a rat-run. You can't just do that to people at one single stroke."

He says residents are positively disposed to a development going ahead on the land but are particularly concerned over the height of the proposed blocks. "The second and top storey will be looking into gardens. It will be just under 42 foot high, twice as high as our houses.

"There's a pub planned for the third floor of one of the blocks. The fact that it has a veranda will mean people will be encouraged to drink and smoke outside where they'll be looking down on the houses.

"There's a pedestrian walkway proposed which will run along the back of the houses and we feel it will encourage antisocial behaviour."

Local Fianna Fáil county councillor Barry Cowen, a brother of the Minister, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment given that he has a vested interest in the proposed development.

Denis O'Connell of Command Properties made the application seeking the demolition of the pub and neighbouring dwellings along with various outbuildings for the construction of the new development.

Block A will consist of an anchor retail unit of 1698sq m, seven retail units of approximately 100 sq m each and two kiosk units of 60sq m each. There will be 10 townhouses and eight apartments in the block along with office accommodation measuring 609sq m. A basement car park will provide 190 spaces.

Block B will have a commercial unit, suitable for use as a medical centre or as three separate retail units and office accommodation.

Block C will consist of two retail units, a new public house, one townhouse and two apartments. A further 44 surface car park spaces will also be available.

"The proposed development would transform the heart of Clara and offer new services and facilities to a growing community and population which has been crying out for such a development, " Denis O'Connell says. He claims up to 200 jobs could be created during the construction and operational stages of the projects.

"The point is, there was no consultation with anyone in the town, let alone the estate, with regards to this development, " Frank Moran claims.

At a recent meeting with the developers, residents outlined the basis of their concerns.

However, attempts to arrange a second meeting fell through because of disagreement over the issue of a mutually acceptable venue and the number of residents who would attend.

"They refused the meeting on the grounds that a) it wasn't in Clara; b) they wouldn't be told how many could attend, and c) they wouldn't agree to the presence of two county councillors, " a source close to the developers says.

"We wanted to meet as a group, " Frank Moran says.

"We don't want councillors at any of our meetings. We elected them to represent us and they're not doing that.

At this stage, people in the estate have lost faith in their public representatives."

"I welcome the principle of the proposed development, " says local independent county councillor Dervill Dolan. "Historically, a majority of the people from Clara and surrounding areas have done their weekly shopping in the large supermarkets in larger towns. The people of Clara and the surrounding areas are entitled to have access to a large supermarket and retail area locally rather than having to travel to the larger towns to do their weekly shopping.

"The development will also encourage new residents into the town and I believe that it is the kickstart the town has needed for some years. I own a property in the town myself and this type of retail development will naturally encourage me and other business people and property owners in the town to look at future development potential for their properties.

"That said, I am aware that local residents in the area have, what I believe, are very genuine concerns in relation to overlooking and privacy issues, traffic and access issues.

"This is not a situation of "not in my back yard", this is a situation where locals are welcoming a development which is close by, but are concerned about certain aspects of the development. In my opinion this is the type of constructive debate that the planning process allows and I advised the residents to make their concerns known to the planning section of the council by way of submission as part of the planning process."

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