Thousands of farmers across Ireland have had their land sterilised for decades to make way for road developments — many of which may never be built.
he current National Development Plan identifies 30 national road projects at some stage of planning or development, including the N6 Galway city ring road, the M20 Limerick to Cork motorway and the N24 connecting Limerick and Waterford.
New environmental policy — and the impact it will have on future road developments — has put fresh question marks over the viability of these roads, leaving the farmers affected in even greater uncertainty.
The 2021 Climate Act, which effectively overturned the planning permission for the Galway ring road in October, is likely to have an impact on every major decision concerning a national road project into the future.
More than 2,500ac of farmland was to be affected by the Galway ring road, with much of this land being sterilised for the past 10 years.
Paul O’Brien, chair of the IFA’s Environmental and Rural Affairs Committee, says better communication and quicker decisions could ease the worry being felt by farmers.
“A lot of these roads may never be built, because there is a considerable amount of people who are suggesting other transport options, other than building roads,” he says.
“Meanwhile, if you have land which might be seen as a potential location for the expansion of a road, that land is still frozen.
“You may have a route corridor that could be up to five miles wide. So if a farmer or any rural dweller puts in a planning application, it has to be referred to the road project team.
“There could be up to five potential routes. Most of that land will never be built on, but the farmers will not get planning permission.
“I am dealing with guys whose land might have been earmarked as a potential route up to 15 years ago.”
A spokesperson from Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII) says developing new roads is a “difficult” and “lengthy” process but that they work with landowners to make it as painless as possible.
“TII in partnership with the Local Authority work collectively for a fair and equitable outcome for both the landowner and the taxpayer,” said the spokesperson.
“It is a difficult process, but the state on behalf of the taxpayer is investing in making the national road network safer for all road users, and in many cases the landowners support the development of new infrastructure and want it built as quickly as possible.
“The process of delivering new infrastructure is a lengthy one and can be delayed due to external factors; these delays also have impact on landowners.”
Here, we speak to three affected farmers.
‘Having this hanging over you for 20 years is a big issue… there is no compensation for all that stress’
For 20 years, the Coughlan family of Buttevant have lived and farmed under the shadow of a compulsory purchase order. Three generations of sleepless nights, countless opportunities come and gone, no way to plan, no room to breathe.
John Coughlan has seen countless different incarnations of the M20 Cork-Limerick motorway come and go. He has seen the effect that this state of limbo had on his late father Michael, the impact on his own farming life, and on his daughter Helena.
It started back in 1998, when plans for the motorway were identified. Various plans were drawn up and then shelved, before being resurrected in 2018.
In every potential route map, the lines have always run right through the Coughlan farm.
This has sterilised a large portion of the family farm for almost a quarter of a century, with no development possible, planning permission out of the question, and no idea of when this will all be resolved.
“It put our plans for the farm on hold; (in 2010) it looked like we would lose 15ac out of a 60ac block. That put a serious dampener on what we could do. Then that road was shelved and this was hanging over us for years after that,” says Mr Coughlan.
“This is going onto the third generation now. My father was impacted at the first stage, I have been impacted for the past 18 or 20 years. Now my daughter (who is farming with me) and son will be impacted by it. It’s an incredible imposition to put on any family.
“It’s a lovely plot of land — a nice square of quality land with a central passage going down through it. If the roadway goes through it, it will make a right mess of the whole farm.
“There has been opportunities over the years that I haven’t been able to do because this was hanging over us.
“Even now, I should be reseeding the land where the road is due to come through. If the road comes through in 12 months… why would I be reseeding it? Reseeding takes a good few years to repay itself.
“This has directly impacted me time and again. I had to give two sisters of mine a site each out of my own land (away from the proposed M20) because my father couldn’t give it to them. He went to get planning and was told there would be no planning got on that land.
“It’s a lot of stress all the time. It put a lot of stress on my father when he was trying to sort out his farm business. There have been tax issues and all sorts of complexities.
“I’d like to transfer the land to my children now but it’s all still up in a heap. I can’t do anything with it. I can’t sell it until this is resolved.
“There has been a lot of stress in it over the years. Nobody wants to have their land compulsory purchased. Having this hanging over you for 20 years is a big issue, and there is no compensation for all of that stress.”
While Mr Coughlan accepts that a motorway is necessary between Cork and Limerick, he says the way the project has been managed over the past 20 years has created needless suffering for farmers.
“We’d all love to see this motorway project dropped, but we recognise that there is a traffic problem,” he says.
“Something has to be sorted. No farmer wants to see lives being lost on the road but there has to be proper communication and decisions have to be made. We can’t be strung along for another five, 10 or 15 years.
“I have a house on this farm that my son is living in; when the motorway comes that house will be cut off from the rest of the farm. The motorway will be very close to the house, that will have a huge impact on him as well.
“No amount of compensation would make this up to farmers. As far as I am concerned, TII (Transport Infrastructure Ireland) don’t understand the impact that motorways have on families.
“Even the small things. We’ve had people out doing surveys and digging bore-holes again. You still can see where they did the same thing 12 years ago, you can still see the animals damaging the land where the first set were dug.
“We need closure on this. There are a lot of farmers in limbo, it’s been too long.”
A government announcement on the future of the M20 was due to be made in summer of 2021. It was postponed until October of this year, and an announcement is now expected in March.
‘We’ve had a Gaza Strip on our farm for 20 years. We own it but can’t do anything with it’
Limerick farmer Eamon English says his farm was almost turned into a “Gaza Strip” and divided in three by the proposed N24.
A section of his holding has been on the preferred ‘black route’ for the N24 for 20 years, parallel to the Limerick-Dublin rail line, cutting his farm in three and leaving the centre portion inaccessible.
“We are 23 years into it now. It’s been a generational thing,” he says. “We are already bisected by the rail line so we would have had three strips of land. Underpasses are not an option here.
“Then we had the economic crash and everything was shelved. But it was always there in the background. This year, over the summer, we had a new project, the N24 Improvement Scheme.
“We are not as severely affected by this scheme but I have a parcel of land which looks like it will be turned into a roundabout, so that will be a few acres.
“We have sat in a state of limbo for 23 years. Back when people were buying quota, we couldn’t buy any because we never knew the day that we would get a notice to treat (for a compulsory purchase order) in the door.
“We had discussions over the years about building sheds or putting down farm roads and we could never do it, we were always stuck waiting on a decision on this road.
“Twenty-two years is a long time to wait for someone to tell you there was a wall going to go through you.
“We have sat here with a Gaza Strip on our property for 20 years. We own it, but can’t do anything with it. There was this elephant in the room all the time. It made every decision awkward.”
This land sterilisation has had a number of impacts on the English family which cannot be undone.
“I wasn’t able to build the house where I wanted to build it,” he says. “I had to build it a mile away from my yard. This was a lifelong lifestyle change for me and for my kids growing up.
“I have to get up now at 3am during the spring and drive over there — where I was initially building it I would have been able to walk right out to it.
“If I went for planning today I could build it wherever I wanted, because the route has changed. That’s the killer.
“You don’t want to stop progress but you need a decision. You need answers. It’s like going into a doctor with an ailment and being told to come back in ten years and they will see how you are then.”
According to Mr English, no amount of compensation could make up for the stress that he and his family have endured.
“We all enjoy motorways and convenient travel. But sometimes [when driving] you should look in over the ditch and feel for the people who had their land taken,” he says.
“People think we’ll get millions for it. There is no millions — there is money on the day for the value of the land. But there is no money for the limbo that we have been in for 23 years and there is no money for the implications that this will have 20 or 30 years down the line.
“Money isn’t everything. The not knowing has been the worst part of it. As a young farmer you want to be able to mind your land and plan for the future… that has been taken away from us.
“It’s a horrible thing. It’s like a chronic disease. It is there all the time and it will probably take you out eventually.”
A spokesperson from N24 Cahir to Limerick Junction Project Team said that disturbance to farmers is an unfortunate consequence of transportation projects.
“Unfortunately, schemes such as these are subject to intense scrutiny and delay during the statutory approval phase, and are subject to fluctuating funding allocations from the Department of Transport,” said the spokesperson.
“These, amongst other factors, can lead to delays in the delivery of badly needed infrastructure. It is important, however, that once identified, the preferred route corridor is protected from other development until the planning process is complete, funding is allocated at a future date and the road is operational.
“A key reason that lands need to be sterilised is to prevent development and subsequent demolition of homes afterwards.
“It is also worth noting that the lands continue to be fully available for their normal agricultural uses.”
‘Access is going to be the biggest problem for people’
For Monaghan farmer Andy Boylan, land sterilisation and having his property impacted by road developments is nothing new.
This is the third time that the Carrickmacross beef and poultry farmer has been asked to make way for a road.
Earlier this year, farmers and landowners bordering the N2 were informed of plans to widen it from a two-lane roadway to a four-lane dual carriageway with a central median and a cycle path.
More than 300 farmers between Ardee and Castleblaney are set to be impacted. While the land taken from these farmers will be small in most cases, access to the road and to land on the opposite side of the road will be a major issue.
Large junctions will need to be created, and crossing the road between them will no longer be possible.
“We had one round of introductory meetings between the farmers and the project team. I have requested that we have further meetings… some of my neighbours are concerned about the loss of access. It’s causing a lot of worry,” says Mr Boylan.
“They [the road project team] really need a little bit more communication. These people came along and presented plans, they spent half an hour with some people, and they feel that is sufficient.
“We were almost more confused after the meeting than before. Now we have the maps and we’re starting to find all these little problems that we didn’t notice at the meetings.
“They won’t be taking a lot of land, in fact, in some cases they will just be using the land that is already in the possession of Monaghan County Council.
“But there are lots of problems at the junctions… in some cases it could be up to 10ac of land including the junctions, access roads and drainage ponds.”
Mr Boylan says communication between the project team and local farmers was better on the two previous occasions he was affected by road development.
“One thing we had previously which was very useful was a council liaison officer. We had that with the original development of the N2 — one person who would sit down with the farmers and keep them informed of what is going on,” he says.
“We had better communication in the past. We had more access to Monaghan County Council and more opportunities to highlight our problems the first time around. They (the current project team) are just not taking the time out to talk to people.
“I have been involved in some level with dealing with this road for years so people are asking me questions, and I can’t answer the questions they are asking me.
“Access is going to be the biggest issue for people. I know of one case where there are seven families who currently have to travel a couple of hundred metres to get access to the road — they are going to be asked to divert on a road of about 4-5km.
“The road they are being asked to divert onto is a one-lane road, so if they meet somebody, they are going to have to back up until they find a gateway. That road is also liable to flood in the winter. They is an alternative route but that means diverting maybe 20km.
“That is a massive inconvenience and a massive amount of extra driving, when we are all supposed to be watching our carbon emissions.”
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