Pocket a Dublin estate for €5m
A mansion with historic garden selling for tenth of 2007 price.
Just four years ago, the late Sally Walker rested outdoors in her mid-nineties and looked over the famous gardens at Fernhill that she had fought for and tended for more than 65 years – she must have wondered what would become of them after her passing.
The last great gardener custodian of 150 years of famous planting at Fernhill Gardens in Sandyford, Co Dublin, Mrs Walker was responsible for the preservation and further development of one of Ireland's most celebrated cultivated landscapes.
Before her passing in 2010, both house and gardens had already been sale contracted to a developer before being flipped on to another – David Arnold, who acquired the estate for a sum variously reported at €40m and €45m in 2007.
There were reports at the time of purchase that Mr Arnold, a serial developer, had no plans whatsoever to develop the land and that he had intended keeping the gardens open to the public. Many took these claims with a pinch of salt.
There had also been speculation that Mr Arnold had hoped to "trade" the historic estate and public gardens – closed in the years since NAMA took over – for some developable council land elsewhere.
But by late 2009, just months before Mrs Walker's death, Mr Arnold went ahead and proposed a motion to rezone the land for extensive housing and some amenity use.
The motion didn't succeed following opposition from many including the then Environment Minister John Gormley and then Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown manager Owen Keegan, but received the support of then Fianna Fail minister Martin Cullen.
The property market crashed hard and the Fernhill Estate was then taken over by Nama – its gates finally closed to the public.
And last week, with news starting to leak that the property was about to come to the open market, the controversy over Fernhill reignited with reports that a motion has been tabled to Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council for debate later this month to purchase the estate from Arnold/NAMA – presumably before it is sold on the private market.
The product of 150 years of enthusiastic gardeners, including the Robinsonian planting Darley family and more recently, since 1934, two generations of Walkers, Fernhill House, and its acreage – in formal gardens, wild pastures as well as 13 acres of woodlands and substantial chunks of wild heath – have been celebrated by Ireland's plant enthusiasts for decades.
The selling agents, Colliers, are dismissive of its prospects for development, those who fear for its future will still reflect on the fact that Dublin is in the grip of a housing crisis and that the estate already sits cheek by jowl with relatively new estates at Belarmine and Aiken's Village.
Colliers believe the house and its lands might well be the target of a private buyer and could end up in the hands of one single owner.
"This is a private home in need of work and a fine pocket estate within easy reach of Dublin city centre. There aren't too many of those about and that's how we'll be marketing the property."
And despite being cash- strapped, there is still plenty of speculation that Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown might yet try and acquire the property for a public park and local amenity.
Fernhill house has its origins in 1723 when the Darley family first became established here and, unlike more planned estate houses, it "evolved" in fits and starts.
Accommodation includes an entrance hall with a large carved chimney piece and a wood-burning stove, a drawingroom, a study and a diningroom. Most of the rooms come with parquet floors and carved chimney pieces.
There's an olde worlde kitchen complex with sculleries, utities and pantries, and two more sittingrooms and four to seven bedrooms, depending on how you want it configured.
There's a public right-of- way through the southern section of the property and a life tenancy exists in favour of Mr Robert Walker in the Garden Cottage.
The property is zoned F and B – the former to preserve and provide for open space and ancillary recreational activities, the latter to improve rural amenity and provide for the development of agriculture.
There's also a Special Objective to the former to preserve trees, woodlands and amenity gardens.
While the local authority may wish to engage Nama, the appetite from wealthy foreigners for well-placed Irish "pocket" estates (most recently Kinsealy which was acquired by a Japanese businessman) will heat up attempts to find a solution to saving the historic gardens and the by now rundown house in the process.
Colliers on (01-6333700).