PLANS for a bypass of one of the country's most congested cities will have to be re-drawn if it is to go ahead.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has ruled that a proposed 12km bypass around Galway city cannot be built because it will have a severe impact on a protected natural habitat.
The bypass was approved in 2008. It would affect just 1.47 hectares of the 270-hectare site on the shores of Lough Corrib – which is protected because it contains large deposits of limestone as well as 14 other protected habitats.
Galway city and county councils will either ask to develop the road under a special provision in European law – imperative reasons of overriding public interest (IROPI) – because it is of "overriding public interest", or they will look for an alternative route.
The ECJ judgment comes after environmental campaigner Peter Sweetman and the Department of the Environment challenged An Bord Pleanala over its decision in November 2008.
Some months earlier, the Government had proposed making the surrounding habitat an area of special conservation – protected under EU law – but this decision was not made until three weeks after the board had ruled.
The case was appealed to the High Court, which ruled in favour of the board. It was then referred to the Supreme Court, where it was decided that the ECJ should become involved.
Yesterday, the Luxembourg-based court ruled that the precautionary principle should apply and that the road should not be approved unless it could be proven it would not impact on the entire site.]
The ruling means the proposed N6 Galway City outer bypass may have to be scaled back or abandoned. Some €14m has been spent to date on the project.
When approving planning permission, An Bord Pleanala said the road would not "have unacceptable effects for the environment". But the court said that the construction of the Galway bypass would destroy limestone which could not be replaced.
The ruling was welcomed by Mr Sweetman, who said: "I think this project is stone dead. It has to be a human health, public safety or no alternative to be taken under IROPI.
"If you take that to an extreme, they could dig a tunnel like Shell had to."
An Taisce said the decision was a "huge leap forward" in nature conservation, while Transport Minister Leo Varadkar said the Government remained committed to building the bypass but that it was "too early" to say if the IROPI option would be invoked.
Local Fine Gael councillor Frank, whose family owns 1.5 hectares of the land which would have been purchased to build the road, said the road should have been completed a decade ago.
His land was acquired by compulsory purchase order in 2006, but no money has been paid over.
"The land is just growing briars, it's scrubland and good for nothing," he said.
"We seem to have this attitude of object to everything and get nothing done."
The case will now be referred back to the Supreme Court, which will be asked by Mr Sweetman's legal team to quash the An Bord Pleanala decision.