5 May 2007

Philip Culhane, owner of No 4, The Crescent, Limerick gives his own account of the stresses and frustrations of going through the planning process with a Protected Structure. It's a long letter, but I think you all should read it becuase Philip is no 'cowboy developer', just an ordinary citizen who happens to own a Protected Structure and has the guts to stand up and describe what's really going on.

Dear Garry,

…I refer to the difficulties I had as far as the work I carried out to the Georgian building I own and which of course, is a Protected Structure.   As you are aware, I embarked on matters in 2002 and ultimately, came through the process four years later but only after a lot of stress and anxiety and having spent over double the amount of money I had budgeted for originally.   
Unfortunately, my experience was that I was dealing with a number of different individuals within the local authority.  This is not a criticism of any of these individuals who were always as helpful and courteous as they could be. 


Initially, my main concern was to repair / replace the windows.  I was informed that I did not need planning permission for the work I proposed completing.  However, I was subsequently informed that I did need planning permission.  I also decided to apply for a Fire Certificate.  There was a substantial dichotomy between the Conservation Officer within the Planning Department and the Fire Officer.  There were certain works the Fire Officer was insisting on for the purpose of the Fire Certificate but which the Conservation Officer would not allow because of the protected structure status of the building.  Accordingly, I was left in limbo and while this impasse was going on, I was incurring substantial and ongoing loss as a result.  Eventually, I wrote a letter by way of a plea for help to the City Manager and to a local Dail Deputy both of whom obliged and came to my assistance.  At their instigation, a meeting between all parties concerned, including the Fire Officer and the Conservation Officer, was arranged. The meeting was chaired by the Dail Deputy.  Up to then, there was no liaising between the two sections of the local authority i.e. the planning and the fire departments and of course, I was caught in the middle.  After the meeting, matters were ironed out in that both sides compromised, the planning permission came through and we were able to obtain the Fire Certificate in respect of the building. 


I found the whole experience to be extremely stressful and frustrating.  Sometimes I did not know where to turn for help.  At least, the work on the building was ultimately completed and the finished product is of a high standard with the benefit of a Fire Certificate in respect of the building.  I was very anxious from the start that the original features of the building would be preserved and at the same time that the building would be brought up to modern day requirements.  Clearly, the preservation of this part of old is vital.  I really feel sorry for those working within the present system what with all its limitations and that includes professionals acting for their clients.  I would have thought that the allocation by the State of full time conservation officers in each local authority area or certainly, in the urban areas is vital and for them to have some consistency as between them.  The conservation officer and the fire officer should liaise with one another from the start.  Otherwise, what will happen as indeed, happened in my case, is that the fire officer will have certain requirements and the conservation officer may not agree.  It is then back to the fire officer again and thereby, the impasse arises.  However, whilst I understand that there is provision in the legislation for the conservation officer to make certain concessions where fire safety issues arise, this is really too subjective in that the conservation officer and the fire officer may still not agree. 


Again, this is not a criticism of the Conservation Officer or the Fire Officer who worked on my case in that it appeared to me that they were victims of the flawed system that is in place.

Indeed, the position as described by you in one of your dispatches that applies in New York appears to be a very good system.  The very real danger with the present system here is that people will have had such bad experiences that they will seek to avoid going through the proper channels at all.  It is clear that the present system is seriously flawed.  A proper system needs to be put in place which is consistent and which accommodates the property owner and his advisors.  Otherwise, I feel that there is a danger that a vital part of our heritage and culture will be jeopardised. 

I might add as well that I had secured a blue chip tenant to take a Lease of the building but because of the numerous delays, they had to secure different accommodation.  The building was empty for a number of years.  Indeed, the local authority ultimately demanded payment of rates from me in respect of this period when the building was empty.  It appears that commercial property owners in the urban area are liable for half the full rates owing even when a building is not occupied.  In the County area, the situation is different in that there is no liability for rates while the building is not occupied.  Indeed, I was tempted to challenge the unfairness of this in the courts but felt that the time and effort involved was probably not worth it.  

I really do not think that the whole exercise I went through was worth it given the aggravation involved and the amount of my time that was consumed by it and of course, the financial cost.  Overall, I had to employ a civil engineer, three separate architects, an electrical engineer, a structural engineer and a quantity surveyor so you can imagine the fees incurred as far as all of them were concerned.  Clearly, I lost out by not being in a position to let the building while all this was going on and then, to have rates levied in respect of the period which would in the normal way have been the responsibility of the tenants but which I now have to pay myself.  I should add that there were times when I really did feel like giving up completely, leaving the building unfinished and empty and selling it off.  There was one winter when all work was at a standstill and we were waiting for the planning permission – the heating was off in the building, dampness had appeared and I could see the building deteriorating.  I set out this fact in one of my submissions to the local authority in an effort to resolve the impasse.  

My advice to anybody embarking on a similar road would be to ensure firstly, that they have a good professional team on board from day one and secondly, to have a detailed pre-planning meeting with the local authority to include the planning official and fire officer together, and to hope that they are fortunate enough to be dealing with the same planning official in the local authority from the beginning to the end of the project.  This unfortunately as well is where I really came a cropper.  From start to finish, I would say that I was dealing with about eight different officials within the local authority.  I need not elaborate on the difficulties this posed.   I trust that the foregoing gives you an indication of what I went through.  

Your dispatches are very enlightening and every success with them in the future.   

Regards, Philip J. Culhane.

And just in case you think Philip's building was an 'examplar' of Georgian architecture, check out this view of the top floor. It wasn't all this bad, it certainly wasn't any beauty.

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