Tragedy averted at disputed holiday camp - council now seeks eviction
By Finian Coghlan
A caravan park that was told it was in breach of fire regulations nearly five years ago saw three of its properties burn to the ground in an accidental fire last Sunday (May 27).
In the aftermath of the accident, it has been revealed Westmeath County Council is seeking the eviction of the businessman who has been leasing the caravan park for the last 12 years from the council.
Fortunately, there were no injuries in the fire, which broke out at the privately-run tourist facility on the Donore shore of Lough Derravaragh, three kilometres north of Multyfarnham, at a little after 7pm.
Though three tenders from the Westmeath Fire Brigade were at the remote location within 23 minutes, the conditions meant the best the firefighters could do was limit the spread of the fire to other caravans and to nearby woodland.
“It could’ve been an awful tragedy, but fortunately there were no injuries” said local TD, James Bannon, who had actually been enjoying a walk at the scenic spot, and who phoned the emergency services.
It was claimed by a local resident that because of a lack of proper hydrants, the firefighters were fortunate to have a slipway close by from where they could replenish their tender.
However, Paul Smith, the businessman who runs the caravan park, disputes this and estimated the value of the damage “to two caravans and a trailer” at less than €2,000.
“It was a small fire, which we could’ve put out ourselves, but thought it safer not to,” he said.
The caravan park has been the subject of an ongoing dispute with the authorities since 2000.
Mr Smith and his then business partner, engineer Annette Nally, were originally granted planning permission for a 40-bay park, a camping area, a shop, restaurant, and toilet block on the council-owned site in 1996, but started to encroach on land not covered by the lease in 2000.
Since then, the park has grown to now host 110 caravans and mobile homes, well in excess of its originally permitted 40, as well as a number of other additions to the facilities. Retention of these expansions has been applied for on a number of occasions but refused by the planning department.
In November 2007, fire safety officers inspected the caravan park on foot of a local complaint, and found that “current fire regulations were not being adhered to”.
In particular, and with most relevance to last weekend’s accident, the inspectors noted “the location of the caravans should be such as to reduce the risk of the spread of fire between them”, and recommended a minimum of six metres between caravans.
“This was not the case in many situations on Donore Caravan park...and Mr Smith has been advised to resolve all outstanding issues.”
However, this distance issue was subsequently resolved, according to Mr Smith, and the Fire Officer was satisfied in a follow-up visit.
In 2008 Westmeath County Council issued Mr Smith with a list of measures it wanted completed by August of that year.
When all of these were not complied with within the timeframe, the council issued a notice of forfeiture for the public lands upon which he has over-extended his caravan park.
Civil proceedings were issued in the Circuit Court in December and, according to a senior member of the council executive: “Because of the breach of the  lease, we’re seeking ejectment. We’re asking Paul Smith to leave the [10 acre (2.5Ha)] site. It’s fairly straightforward”.
Mr Smith says he is in “serious dispute with the council on this and other issues”, and that the council had promised to remove all the illegal caravans on the lakeshore as a condition of his lease, but that failed to do so.
He admitted the dispute is now between his and the council’s firms of solicitors, and that the crux of the difficulties lies in a dispute between himself and one other of the lakeshore residents.
“The only hassle I get down here is with that man,” he said,