Sunday 25 March 2018

Land war looms as club fights to avoid eviction

Donal Burtenshaw and Sharon Tolan of East Meath Utd.
Donal Burtenshaw and Sharon Tolan of East Meath Utd.


A CO MEATH football club which caters for more than 300 children has been ordered to vacate its home by January 15 by the owners of the land, right in the middle of the underage soccer season.

Members and supporters of East Meath Utd in Laytown have been left shocked and angry at the order to vacate notice served by Liberty Homes Ltd on October 15 last and they now fear for the future of the club if it is made homeless.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny referred the matter to Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar last week following contact from the club, while FAI chief executive John Delaney has also intervened, pledging the association's full support to East Meath Utd.

"We were informed of the situation by the club and it is important that we help," Delaney told the Sunday Independent. "The matter is being reviewed by our legal and facilities team and they will be offering advice and assistance. It is about trying to help the 300 kids who play there, and that needs to be put first."

The club held an emergency general meeting two weeks ago, at which parents were very vocal about the situation. "This came as a shock to me as a parent of two young boys with the club, aged six and 11," said Sharon Tolan. "We had to fight tooth and nail for a classroom here and now we have to fight tooth and nail for a a bit of grass for boys and girls to play on."

East Meath Utd have been playing on lands owned by Liberty Homes Ltd since 2008. Documents seen by the Sunday Independent show that the company entered into an agreement with the club as part of an ambitious development plan, which included housing and amenity space, to provide almost 7.5 acres by way of a long-term licence. Liberty Homes' purchase of the land was financed by Ulster Bank.

There were several conditions to the deal, including the company achieving planning permission for more than 450 residential units and agreement with Meath County Council on the recreational space. The deal was non-exclusive, meaning that on the completion of the development, the land would be considered an amenity available to all residents.

In the meantime, the company agreed to allow East Meath Utd to use the land for football pitches on a temporary basis which it could cancel at any time on three months' notice. This is the clause which has now been invoked by the company in a letter dated October 15, signed by Declan Kennedy on behalf of Liberty Homes.

Efforts to speak to a representative of the company on Friday and Saturday were unsuccessful. Clearly, given the economic situation and the collapse in the property market, Liberty Homes' original ambitious development is no longer viable. East Meath Utd are not the only club to have found themselves in this situation since the recession began. Furthermore, according to the documentation seen by the Sunday Independent, the company is acting within its rights to ask the club to vacate the land.

However, one committee member said that the company has added "insult to injury" by, as stated in the letter, asking East Meath Utd to "return the lands to the condition they were in prior to occupation".

According to chairman Donal Burtenshaw, the club has spent almost €70,000 on the land, which has been divided into four pitches, and in fencing the perimeter, installing temporary buildings for dressing rooms and a car park.

Liberty Homes have asked the club to remove the temporary buildings, to reinstate the ground on which the car park has been laid back to grassland, remove all goal posts and dismantle the fencing.

"We're hoping that common sense will prevail and that a solution can be found," said Burtenshaw, who added that he is hoping that an extension to the January 15 deadline can be agreed so that the club's 20 teams can continue their season and to allow the club to work on possible solutions.

One option the club has explored is making an offer to purchase the land, conservatively estimated to be worth approximately €80,000. However, initial soundings to secure loans from financial institutions have been overwhelmingly negative.

The club serves Mornington, Bettystown and Laytown on the east coast. The population in this small area exploded through the during the boom years, but there has been severe criticism of how Meath County Council has handled this growth in terms of the provision of key services and amenities.

Kieran Moloney has children playing with the club and he joined the committee at the recent EGM. "This community is in dire need of additional playing surfaces, never mind facing the prospect of losing some of the very few it has," he said.

Founded in 1994, originally as Donnycarney Utd before a name change in 1999, the club has led a nomadic existence, never having a place to call home despite repeated promises, including a commitment in the county draft development plan for pitches beside the new primary school.

Local councillor Wayne Harding believes the treatment of the club has been a "scandal". He added: "This club has given years of service to the local community and thousands of children have passed through their youth academies. There is no question that their situation should be stabilised at this stage but they have been let down on a number of occasions and moved from one temporary accommodation to the other."

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