Saturday 19 August 2017

Home truths: Ballsbridge towers to Betty's box room

Developer Sean Dunne had wanted to build this 37 storey tower on the site of the former Jurys and Berkeley Court Hotels
Developer Sean Dunne had wanted to build this 37 storey tower on the site of the former Jurys and Berkeley Court Hotels
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

We're well used to long, drawn out planning battles over big controversial developments - brash new pubs or outsized hotels that might infringe on the sleep of local residents; sprawling residential schemes which could put pressure on schools and traffic lanes; factories or waste plants which invoke fears of pollution; or demolitions which might clear away local buildings of historic value.

We've had the drawn-out planning battles for Cherrywood, for Sean Dunne's outsized diamond-shaped Ballsbridge tower block. Most recently, we saw Greg Kavanagh's €15m scheme for duplexes and apartments at Mount Merrion in Dublin turned down in the wake of representations from more than 200 objectors, including Transport Minister Shane Ross.

But are we now set to witness similarly long, drawn out planning rucks over the use of Betty Smith's box bedroom?

A groundbreaking planning decision was issued during the week by An Bord Pleanala (also on the grounds of objections from more than 200), a ruling which could see planning battles erupt all over Ireland over the use of box rooms in private homes. The appeals board upheld a decision by Dublin City Council that the owner of a Temple Bar apartment which has been short let under the Airbnb network will now require planning permission in future to operate his apartment in this way.

The apartment at Crown Alley is reputed to be bringing in more than €70,000 per annum in short-let income and has been steadily let out by its owner.

So, at face value, the revenues would appear to be of a commerical calibre and it also seems that the disturbance level to neighbours could be significant. Residents became upset at the extent of usage and approached the City Council, making the point that such usage should require planning permission.

Dublin City planners essentially ruled that, yes, they should have a say in this sort of thing. And this week, An Bord Pleanala upheld the decision - yes, dang tootin' the planners should have a say in this sort of thing. The decision doesn't mean that every Irish Airbnb short let space is now subject to planning permission, as some sources have suggested.

Airbnb itself made the point that the Temple Bar apartment was an unusual case and the decision was specific to that particular property and those circumstances alone. This is true. But what this decision does do is to open each and every Airbnb space in the country up to the scrutiny of neighbourly objections and, subsequently, to the perusals of local planners.

Ireland's planning system is a very open forum in which individuals punch above their weight. Compared with other countries, we are are generally well protected from damaging development and property usage in our area by a system that ensures we all can object in equal measure and we all can appeal if our objection is not upheld.

Which provides us with a double-edged sword in terms of this week's Airbnb decision.

On the upside, someone who takes their three-bed semi in a residential estate and rents out every single room and the garden shed night after night will find themselves curtailed if enough neighbours believe they are being inconvenienced disproportionately. There was no mechanism in place to do this before this week's decision.

On the other hand, this is a charter for action for everybody's local bampot busybody.

I'm talking about the tidy towns dictators, the interceptors of children's wayward footballs, the kingpins of neighbourhood watch and the storm troopers of dog poop prevention.

Every street has one and now they can appoint themselves local Airbnb wardens and poke their noses into your back bedroom.

Airbnb is a new concept and as with any disruptive new practice, it ruffles feathers and creates the need for new legal and planning precedents. Its users vary right from those who might rent out a room for a few nights every few months to those who cram all domestic spaces nightly with wall-to-ceiling backpackers.

The planning regime has to deal with whatever is put up to it, but it would have been far better if considered State regulation had been brought into play to more clearly define what's ok and what's not with Airbnb.

Because it is being opened up within a planning context, it means the 'how long is a piece of string' question on Airbnb will be debated over and over again in the planning process on a per property and per room basis. That's expensive and a waste of State resources, and its also ridiculous.

On a positive, it also marks an end to over-the-fence boasting of big bucks from Ireland's Airbnb Bettys.

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