Landowners object to Comber greenway extension

By Conor Macauley
BBC NI Agriculture & Environment Correspondent

Image caption,
Landowners in the area are opposed to the greenway being extended through their farms

A dispute with landowners appears to have scuppered the preferred route of a proposed County Down greenway.

Ten landowners are objecting to an extension of the Comber greenway through their land alongside Strangford Lough to Newtownards.

They said extensive preliminary work was done before there had been any consultation with them.

Ards and North Down Council said it was following Department for Infrastructure guidance.

The council said consultation was required when the plan got to the design stage and has now begun.

Image caption,
The proposed extension would run through a stretch of coastal agricultural land

So far, the council has been given £33,000 of public money to work up the scheme.

However, landowners have said they are totally opposed and feel let down by the handling of the public consultation.

Their opposition means the preferred route along the coast may not now be feasible.

An alternative route could see a significant proportion of the 7.5-mile (12km) path running along the dual carriageway between Comber and Newtownards.

Image caption,
The existing cycle path runs along the Comber to Newtownards Road but any new route would be separated

Suzie Ferguson, who speaks for the landowners, said they had found out the council was considering a route through their land in 2015, two years before they got official confirmation.

A detailed feasibility study carried out by the council and obtained under the Freedom of Information (FoI) Act showed the preferred option running through their farms, she said.

Ms Ferguson said farmers were concerned about a range of issues including pet nuisance and the risk to the public from agricultural spraying.

The farmland is predominantly used for growing crops.

The council said the new path could mean an extra 70,000 trips on the greenway annually.

It is estimated that there are 190,000 trips a year already.

Image caption,
The council wants to increase the number of people using the greenway

The council said it was still in consultation with farmers along the route.

Spokesman Graeme Bannister said that, with hindsight, it might have been better to talk to the landowners earlier, but added that the council had been following the guidance laid down as part of a competitive grants process.

He said if the route did end up closer to the dual carriageway it would be totally separated - not simply a reworking of existing cycle paths alongside the road.

A spokesman for the Department for Infrastructure said: "The full project bid must be received by the department by the end of March 2018.

"If council fails to comply with any of the conditions of grant set out in their Letter of Offer, the department may withhold the grant payment, or require all or any part of the grant to be repaid."