THE green light for a £100 million golf resort on the fringes of the Giant’s Causeway will not endanger the famous landmark’s world heritage designation, the Environment Minister has pledged.
Granting the long-sought planning permission for the 18-hole championship links course and five-star hotel complex on the spectacular sand dunes near Bushmills, Alex Attwood insisted extensive restrictions on the development would ensure the status of the popular nearby visitor attraction would not be adversely impacted.
Mr Attwood approved the application for the Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort and Spa in the face of fierce opposition from the National Trust, which owns the Giant’s Causeway – a Unesco World Heritage site.
Announcing the outcome of the 10-year bid for planning permission, Mr Attwood said he had carefully weighed the environmental implications against the potential economic and tourist benefits of the luxury development.
The complex, comprising the course, a 120-bedroom hotel, 75 villas and conference facilities, will employ around 360 people.
“I will not, and would not, do anything that compromises all the designations that exist in respect of these lands,” said Mr Attwood.
“I think that’s why the planning conditions have been so exhaustive and extensive.”
The resort, which is set to open in 2014, is just over a mile from the 38,000 hexagonal volcanic basalt columns that make up the Giant’s Causeway.
Mr Attwood, who faced tough questions from environmentalists at an event in Bushmills to announce the planning outcome, said his decision had been a demanding one and he had not taken it lightly.
He said he was prepared to fly to France to meet Unesco officials or host them in Northern Ireland if they wanted to raise any concerns about the move.
“I have acted with a high vigilance and challenging approach.
“I have carefully considered both sides of the argument but given the boost to tourism and the economy that the proposal will bring, I have decided to grant planning permission.
“To ensure that the environment is fully respected, my decision will be accompanied by stringent conditions which will mitigate the impacts of the development on the ecology of the site and the local landscape.”
Friends of the Earth was one of the groups which voiced opposition during yesterday’s announcement in Bushmills Inn hotel.
The organisation’s Northern Ireland director, James Orr, said “the landscape around the Giant’s Causeway should be protected. Instead, a form of landscape trauma is being permitted at Northern Ireland’s only World Heritage Site. It’s like building a drive-through burger bar at the Taj Mahal”.
“The precedent set today is that our planning system still cannot protect our most special places.”
But Mr Attwood said planning policies allowed for development in such areas in “exceptional circumstances” – insisting that the resort proposal met that criteria.
The investment is headed by a New York-based Northern Ireland management expert and scientist Dr Alistair Hanna, 67, originally from Holywood, Co Down.
The first planning application was submitted in 2001 and then renewed six years later.
Dr Hanna told the Press Association: “This is a unique project which will be world class in every aspect. The dunes are phenomenal. Every course architect who inspected the landscape has raved about the place. They’ve said: ‘The piece of earth is just made for golf’. It’s amazing. There just isn’t anywhere else like it in the world.
“With Royal Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock (golf clubs) in the same area, I want this part of the world to become a golf resort on a par with Pinehurst and Pebble Beach (in the US).
“I know this is a difficult time economically, but times will get better. We are not building for today. We are building for tomorrow. Golf in 2020 will be in a different place from where it is today and I want this place to be among the top 10 golf destinations in the world.”
He added: “Darren Clarke, Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell have done their bit. Now it’s my time. We’re in the golfing map and this is going to make it even better.”
Dr Hanna’s consortium has held talks with the Ritz Carlton, Four Seasons and Capella Hotels about their potential involvement in the hotel development.
Complex designer Richard Hunter, from nearby Ballymoney, insisted that the development was “environmentally sensitive”.
“We have designed the buildings in such a way that they create the lowest possible visible impact,” he added, revealing there is no part of it more than three storeys.
North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jnr urged local people to get behind the development. He said: “It will become one of the most iconic golf courses in the world, generate employment and write a new chapter in the history of this ancient coastline.”
Tourism Minister Arlene Foster also welcomed the move, noting that golf tourism generates upwards of £14 million each year for the local economy.
Scotsman David McLay Kidd designed the 18-hole course. He has previously worked on courses at St Andrews, Oregon and San Francisco.
Former Policing Board chairman Sir Desmond Rea has been working on the project as an adviser since the initial application was lodged.