A move by Dublin City Council to change land zoning rules in its mammoth new development plan prompted a planning submission from the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin.
At a basic level, the argument turns on a narrow technical question: what exactly can be built on church land? But the issues are bigger than that.
The move casts light on profound change in society that has left the Catholic Church with a diminished role and raises questions about its property holdings.
In a booming property market, the intervention by the archdiocese can also be seen an effort to preserve the potential value of church lands that might later be sold for housing as congregations decline.
It comes with housing pressures ever-present on the political agenda and a deepening sense of crisis in the city’s property market, which has left many young people wondering whether they will ever be able to buy their own home.
The council’s 2022-2028 draft development plan will set the legal parameters for building in the city for the rest of the decade. It will have big implications for all property owners of scale in the city, including the church, which has major holdings throughout Dublin and, indeed, the rest of the State.
Dozens of archdiocese church sites have the zoning category Z15, which has the basic objective of protecting and providing for community uses and social infrastructure. Noting in the draft plan that Z15 lands have “come under increased pressure for residential development”, the council has proposed fresh curbs on any developments on such properties.
“Protecting and facilitating the ongoing use of these lands for community and social infrastructure is a key objective of the council. The council are committed to strengthening the role of Z15 lands and will actively discourage the piecemeal erosion and fragmentation of such lands,” the draft plan says.
“Limited residential/office development on Z15 lands will only be allowed in highly exceptional circumstances where it can be demonstrated by the institutional landowner that the proposed development is required in order to maintain or enhance the function/operational viability of the primary institution on the lands.”
The draft goes on to say that the cessation of an existing social or community use on a site or a “change in land ownership” does not extinguish or negate the function of such lands for community and social infrastructure use.
No matter what the long-term plan is for particular church lands, it is clear that such measures would erode the potential sale value of such property if the church ever wanted to sell.
The archdiocese insists it has no proposals for any change of use on any church site apart from previously disclosed plans for property at Finglas West. But the central thrust of its submission to the council marks a robust claim to alter the zoning on dozens of properties and, thereby, to enhance their value.
Compiled by Brock McClure planning consultants, and backed up with a forceful legal opinion from solicitors Mason Hayes & Curran, the church’s 130-page submission is one of almost 1,350 published on the council’s website.
The archdiocese identifies each of 33 church sites with Z15 zoning and seeks to change the zoning to Z12, whose objective is to “ensure existing environmental amenities are protected in the predominantly residential future use of these lands”.
The reason it cites for seeking the change is the interests of the proper planning and sustainable development of the area “and the provision of residential accommodation” on appropriately located sites.
Brock McClure wrote: “Our client is confident that a Z12 zoning, as set out in the Draft Plan, will allow them to protect their current pastoral, community, educational and religious requirements and obligations, whilst, in some instances, allowing them to achieve their objective regarding the delivery of social and affordable housing.”
The submission says the church concurs that the Z12 “narrative” applies, in that “these are lands, the majority of which are or which have been institutional use, which may be developed for other uses in the future”.
This may well be a long-term play by the archdiocese. But the submission strives for freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to the future of its lands.