Tree felling work at Exploris aquarium to go ahead despite over 3,000 signing petition

Ards North Down Council is continuing plans to fell 14 mature trees to make way for car parking at Exploris Aquarium despite a petition against the plan gaining over 3,000 signatures to date.

Monday, 14th June 2021, 12:35 pm
Updated Monday, 14th June 2021, 1:01 pm
Exploris aquarium in Portaferry
Exploris aquarium in Portaferry

A council officer told members that Exploris management saw the plan as “essential for its survival” and wanted the work to start “as soon as possible.”

Exploris has been the only aquarium in Northern Ireland since it opened in 1987, but will face competition when a new aquarium opens in Belfast.

The council plans to clear an area for a £467,000 project providing 69 new car, coach and disabled parking spaces, new toilets and paths, as well as street and lighting improvements in the Ropewalk area of Portaferry.

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In the space of a fortnight 3,175 signatures have been gathered on a petition on opposition called “Stop the Chop.”

The online petition, set up by local resident Lily Devlin, expresses concern over plans to fell mature trees for extra parking along the Ropeworks Woodland walk.

At a meeting of the council’s Regeneration Working Group a council officer said;  “A tender has been issued and a contract awarded for this work to be done.

“The council has the approval to do this work – much of it is done under permitted development, the only thing that needs a planning application is a blade that is being classed as public art, and we have planning permission submitted for that.

“The removal of the trees to create the 69 spaces – we have made the application and received permission from the planning service to do that. The initial ecological survey has been done, and there was found to be one nest in one of the trees, and so we have to leave that for a month, before a further survey is done.”

He added: “It is important to remind the members this is much more than car parking spaces. This is the creation of bus parking at the entrance, so when children come in they can go onto the footpath and go safely into Exploris. There will be a new path created so families don’t have to walk up the road.

“Three public toilets are being created. The council has received complaints about the toilets in Portaferry for many years. We also have an agreement with Exploris to do the daily maintenance of those toilets and any vandalism will be reported to us.”

He added: “We need those extra 69 spaces to make the facility usable for the town. 58 are needed where the trees are, and the rest can be put in and around them.

“But be mindful, for the 14 trees that are being taken down, we are putting in at least 15 more, and if some of the budget allows we will be putting in more.”

He said: “I have spoken to the operator of Exploris this week and he is very keen for this to go ahead, in fact he has said it is essential for their survival. He originally asked could the work be put off until September, but now wants it to start as soon as possible.”

“We were also talking to Portaferry Regeneration, and they are absolutely behind this project. They see the community and economic benefit to the village.”

He added: “The one way system at Exploris becomes gridlocked very quickly, and it is believed this additional car parking is essential, because everyone wants to park at the door.”

DUP Councillor and Deputy Mayor Robert Adair said: “In recent days there has been objection about the removal of the trees, and I wish those objections had been made at the beginning of the process.

“I have spoken to some of the objectors, and they are very sincere, and I believe they have to be listened to. It is regrettable these trees have to be taken down.”

He added: “I have asked the council office about redesigning the scheme, and what they are telling me is that if we redesign we could lose up to 50 trees. So this has been designed to ensure the least amount of trees are lost.”

Green Councillor Stephen Dunlop said: “This is the first time I have come across this situation, and I am very disappointed that we are finding out about this on the television and in the press.

“Whilst we welcome the investment that officers managed to get for Portaferry, cutting down the trees to lay more parking spaces gives off completely the wrong message. This is something we should have been made aware of at a much earlier date.

“If we are a council going to be seen to take climate breakdown seriously, and that our declaration is not merely words, we need to roll back on this decision. We need to be briefed on the options that have been put forward, to assure ourselves and those objecting to it, that this really is the only option. I do think that we need more information.

“It’s unfortunate that it is being managed by ourselves, giving ourselves this permission, because it does sound to outside parties that what is not acceptable for others is acceptable for the council. Which is almost double standards, so I really do object to the cutting down of these trees.”

The council officer said the Portaferry Town Steering Group was informed in 2019 the trees would have to be felled for the project, and the minutes were returned to the council in that year. He added the application was “done with the same rigour as if anyone had made it.”