Coillte backs away from Cootehill forest

National forestry agency Coillte has relinquished its leasehold interest to lands at Bellamont Forest in Cootehill.

It means that Coillte will have no further involvement in managing the lands, with future public access to the site now a matter exclusively for the owner, John Manuel Morehart, who purchased the adjoining Bellamont House in 2015.

The decision has encouraged local representatives to seek a meeting with Mr Morehart, an American lawyer, to ensure continued public access to the grounds.

The change will not impact public access to the hugely popular and community-owned Erica’s Fairy Forest and Dartrey Forest, which will continue to be managed by Coillte as a commercial forest.

It’s understood that part of the decision to relinquish the leasehold centres on the commercial viability of harvesting given the costs associated with accessing the grounds.

Notice of the change was first posted at Bellamont Forest last week, November 9 (see across).

In a brief statement, mapping out the lands for which the leasehold interest has been relinquished, Coillte state: ‘Coillte will have no further involvement in the management of these lands. Future access to these lands will be a matter for the freehold owner.’

The Anglo-Celt attempted to contact Mr Morehart but, at time of going to print, no reply had been received.

Coillte was also contacted for comment.

Fine Gael councillor Carmel Brady sought to allay fears, dismissing what she described as “rash” and “unhelpful” online commentary, which suggested that the amenity would be closed off to the public for good.

The elected representative said she and other community organisations were seeking a meeting with Mr Morehart to request that the lakeside parkland would continue to be made available for local use. The issue was discussed at this week’s meeting of Bailieborough-Cootehill Municipal District where there was widespread concern from councillors over the developments.

Cllr Paddy McDonald (SF) urged Cavan County Council to become involved in discussions, with Cllr Sarah O’Reilly (AON) questioning whether or not any public money had been spent in the forest.

Director of Services for Transportation, Environment and Water Services Paddy Connaughton told the meeting that it was “informed by Coillte that the decision was reached by mutual agreement”. However, he said the local authority had no role in the discussions.

He also said he did not know if any public money had been spent in the forest as it was a question for Coillte.

Cllr Aiden Fitzpatrick (FF) said rumours were spreading across Cootehill following the surrendering of the leasehold and many people were beginning to worry.

In 2015, Mr Morehart purchased Bellamont House, a substantial Palladian villa set on 1000 acres, for €2 million. It was sold by former owner, the late John Coote, whose family built the mansion in 1728.

Since buying Bellamont, Mr Morehart and his wife Lisa Cervantes Morehart have invested significantly in the estate, including restoration of the gated entrance and walls to the historic property.

Separately, Mr Morehart has lodged a number of planning appeals with An Bord Pleanála contesting permission granted to Abbott Ireland regarding various developments at their Dromore West facility.

A proposal to replace the existing Water Treatment Plant (WTP) was granted by the Bord with revised conditions back in March, but there are two outstanding appeals with regard to plans to extend warehousing and offices, as well as redesign of the site layout and entry.

“We have had nothing whatsoever from Mr Morehart to say that he is changing anything [in relation to public access],” Cllr Brady told the Celt.

She says the only issues that have ever been raised in the past by Mr Morehart and his family concern the privacy of his house, littering, and dog control.

“There has never been an issue with people walking the grounds, except for those few issues, and those are all understandable enough,” she said.

Cllr Brady added: “We would encourage people to continue using the facilities, and to respect and enjoy them. The park is an incredible amenity to the town that is enjoyed by hundreds each day.”