Goodbye To The Countryside?
Bungalow blitz of weird-looking new homes spreads across the farm fields
These days, Americans who visit Irelands countryside come back singing a slightly different tune. The people, the pubs, the humor are as great as ever. But theres less talk about the scenic beauty, and more about the scattershot homebuilding thats rapidly eating up the landscape. In real estate terms, a kind of perfect storm is going on in Ireland that combines sudden wealth with a decline in farming, weak zoning laws, and a popular architectural style that looks wildly out of place. Its threatening to turn west Ireland, in particular, into one of Europes less-attractive suburbs.
Irelands economic explosion has set off a land-grab as intense-if not quite as large-as Americas housing boom after World War II. A key difference, though, is that lots of younger, newly affluent Irish dont want to live on the outskirts of a city. Instead of building little Levittowns within sight of Dublin, many are putting up their dream homes deep in the countryside.
Roads To Ruin?
This trend is being helped by new economic opportunities in rural areas. In Ballymote, near Sligo city, our Ireland Fun Facts friend and sometime contributor Dick Cahill tells us that Abbott Medical, Masonite and the credit card company MBNA all not have facilities very nearby. Further south, on the Beara Peninsula, a revitalized fishing industry has made it possible for more people to live and work locally. But the biggest force behind rural development, according to many, is Irelands modernized road system, which has made it possible to commute much further to work, and to quickly get to weekend homes in places that seemed like the end of the earth just 10 years ago.
The Irish government has also helped, with a number of investment tax breaks. Back in 1995, a wave of summer home building was set off in the West by the Seaside Resort Scheme. Then in 1998, the Rural Renewal Scheme helped fuel new year-round home construction all over the Northwest. When these incentives were first put in place, Irelands rural counties needed help to get out of their long economic decline. From todays perspective, though, they seem only to have turned the Celtic building boom into a speculative frenzy.
Cut to Ribbons
What may be damaging the countryside more than the number of homes, however, is ribbon development the widespread practice of scattering homes evenly across the landscape (along the ribbon of roadway), rather than clustering them to protect at least some open space. Right now, it seems like almost no large tracts of land are being protected from development.
Many in Ireland feel that any restriction on ribbon development would be a kind of heresy. In fact, the government has made repeated moves over the past three years to make it easier for builders to bypass even the weak local restrictions that now exist in the countryside. Martin Cullen, Irelands Environmental Prime Minister, has argued for looser standards, based on the fact that Ireland has always had a dispersed population, and grouping homes together would be somehow un-Irish. The cultural argument, odd as it may sound to American ears, is a favorite rallying cry of those opposing any restrictions on rural development.
Agriculture is in decline, so this is hardly surprising says Frank McDonald, Environment Editor for The Irish Times. There have traditionally been some restrictions against ribbon development, but many of them are now being removed by local counselors who are either acting for developers or who are real estate developers themselves. Counties including Wexford, Galway, Mayo and Kerry are passing laws to allow multiple homes to connect to a single septic tank and cutting back on sightline requirements that have traditionally limited density. Mr. McDonald warns that half a million new homes are projected to go up in the countryside in the next 20 years, adding there will be no unspoilt countryside left in Ireland just 10 years from now, outside of national parks and mountain peaks.
A different view comes from Jim Connolly, a sculptor in West Clare who founded the Irish Rural Dwellers Association (IRDA) three years ago. Mr. Connolly, who has rapidly become the best-known voice against tighter zoning laws, stands hard by the cultural argument. The traditional Irish townland is a scattered community, although its people are tightly knit. This approach goes back for thousands of years. Connolly argues that Ireland has the lowest housing density of any county in Europe. Im not opposed to any kind of control, he says, but whats missing is an understanding of people in an under populated country. What kind of building controls he does favor, however, remains a vague topic. As for any negative impact on tourism, Mr. Connolly says, simply, if people want to see the green fields, they should go to places like Scotland.
Theres a great deal of debate about whether most new homes are being built for farmers children, summer residents or commuters. Most counties in Ireland have long had local needs rules, requiring proof that new homes would go to local families. Mr. Connolly, in fact, claims most of the new building results from existing communities repopulating themselves. But thats impossible, according to Ian Lumley, Environment Officer for An Taisce (pronounced on taskha), the national trust for Ireland. There are 130,000 privately owned farms in Ireland, Mr. Lumley says. We estimate that there should only be about 3,000 new homes needed each year to house family members who want to stay on those properties. The reason there are 18,000 new homes going up a year is that people are applying for permission in their own names and then quickly selling off the sites. Mr. Lumley notes that in 2003, 60% of the new building in Leitrim involves second homes.
Then theres the style thing. Americans are often shocked when they first see the cold, stucco and stone homes the Irish seem to have fallen in love with. The style is often called bungalow bliss, after the title of a popular house-pattern book where many of the home designs come from (critics call it bungalow blitz). Its popularity seems fueled, in part, by a distaste that upwardly mobile Irish have for old villages, old houses or anything else that reminds them of the countrys recent, impoverished past. On the properties of countless new homes, youll see the decaying ruins of an old cottage. IRDAs Mr. Connolly says that foreigners need to understand that rural dwellers cannot live in the kind of hovels the romantic thatched cottages they occupied just 30 or 40 years ago. The new homes, he says, have an international style.
English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who owns a 12th century castle in Tipperary, disagrees. Interviewed by The Irish Independent, Mr. Webber said Ireland is being covered over by some of the most hideous and inappropriate housing anywhere in the world. The Cats composer called for rules requiring new buildings to conform to local design vernaculars. His statement was quickly answered by several politicians saying foreigners should keep their mouths shut on this issue.
But the Irish design vernacular is precisely the problem. There doesnt seem to be one. Its different than in France or England, The Irish Times Mr. McDonald says. Theres no indigenous tradition of home design here, outside of old cottages, which are hard to renovate. He says the so-called big houses of Irelands pre-independence days offer some architectural heritage, but that big, new trophy homes take only a disorganized pastiche of elements from them.
There is a traditional form of rural home, with white walls, a slated roof and vertically proportioned windows, says Pat Dargan, lecturer at the Dublin Institute of Technology, but theres no interest in this tradition now. People are basing their homes on the style of architecture theyve seen on their holidays in Spain and Portugal. This is totally alien to our landscape.
A dark picture?
Whats going on here will eventually be seen as a catastrophe, warns An Taisces Mr. Lumley, adding theres a staggering figure about Ireland that average car mileage here is now higher than in the U.S. In other words, people are willing to tolerate driving extremely long distances to get to work and get their kids to school to be able to live near the water. He says that areas where development is heaviest right now are West Cork, Kerry, Clare, Galway, Mayo, the Donegal and Sligo coasts and the Shannon River coasts a virtual gold list of top tourism regions.
Theres so much wealth in Eire now that Irish citizens have become major buyers of real estate in Britain and in Mediterranean countries. An Taisces pro-control message is so unpopular that the agency recently faced serious financial problems due to lack of public support. And last but not least, nobody on any side of this issue seems to have a viable way for farmers to stay in agriculture instead of selling their land.
An American may have little right to ask the Irish to stop all this, when our own economy is built on private home ownership. But on this side of the pond, weve all seen hot towns become so built-up that people want to flee to the next, less crowded, area. Theres always been a big margin for error in the U.S. Unfortunately, if Irelands new homeowners decide the countryside is too crowded, theres nowhere to go but into the ocean.