Runkerry golf resort plan gets green light
Plans for a £100m golf resort on Northern Ireland's north coast have been given the go-ahead.
The application to build an 18-hole golf course and hotel complex at Runkerry had been one of NI's longest running planning disputes.
The National Trust opposed the plan, but it is understood Department of Environment planners recommended it should go ahead.
It is expected to create 360 new jobs.
The new development, on a 365-acre site, will be known as Bushmills Dunes Golf Resort and Spa.
It will include a championship course, five-star, 120-bedroom hotel and 70 golf lodges and could be open for business in 2014.
Environment Minister Alex Attwood announced the decision on Tuesday, but said it was one which he had "not taken lightly".
"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," he said.
"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.
"The development is an important one for the Causeway Coast and for Northern Ireland, will help to grow tourism, create new job opportunities, enhance our golf product and continue to protect our natural heritage, such a big part of the quality of our lives."
The development will be just over a mile away from the entrance to the Giant's Causeway.
It is located at the junction of the Whitepark and Causeway Road, close to Bushmills. The current planning application was submitted in 2007.
The investment consortium behind the project has been led by US-based management expert Dr Alistair Hanna, who is originally from east Belfast.
He said that the plan was to have a world-class attraction aimed at the exclusive end of the golfing market.
"In today's world the best is still selling very well, the mediocre is not doing well at all," he added.
"You have got to position this as being one of the best in the world.
"We believe that with Bushmills Dunes, Portrush, Portstewart and Castlerock we will have four world-class links golf courses within half an hour of each other.
"There is nowhere else in the world, except maybe St Andrews where you can offer that."
Ian Binnie from the Causeway Coast Communities Consortium said his concern was not the golf course itself, but the environmental impact of the rest of the plans.
"It is the amount of associated building," he said.
"A 120-bedroom hotel, a large clubhouse, a golf academy and 75 self-catering lodges which are actually separate houses.
"That is a huge amount of built development within a protected area around the Giant's Causeway."
James Orr of Friends of the Earth condemned Mr Attwood's decision.
"Planning policies for that area are very clear - the landscape around the Giant's Causeway should be protected," he said.
'Drive-through burger bar'
"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."
The National Trust said it was disappointed with the environment minister's decision to approve the project.
It said it "was not opposed to the development" but was convinced that "the planning application was contrary to a range of the department's planning policies".
A spokesperson said: "As a conservation charity the trust's over-riding focus is the protection of the environment and landscape within the distinctive setting of Northern Ireland's only World Heritage Site.
"We believe this farmland and dune system is the wrong place for such a massive development.
"The National Trust will carefully review the details of the planning decision and consider its options."
DUP MP Ian Paisley welcomed the planning decision and paid tribute to "the tenacity of those behind the application".
"The ten years that this application has taken to reach approval has taught us all a valuable lesson on how patience wins the day," he said.
"The Bushmills Dunes course will be a significant asset for the region and a significant tourist facility.
"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."
Earlier this month, Mr Attwood said he was trying to speed up the planning process.
Currently, more than 50 major projects fall under Article 31, the type most likely to be controversial.
Mr Attwood said he intended to make final decisions on at least 25 of these before the summer.