The Bracken River’s waters were the colour of milky tea.
They thundered off the edge of a waterfall under a thin bridge in Mill Pond Park, and down into the stream below, before flowing up onto a mucky floodplain behind Bridge Street.
There had been a lot of vegetation on that plain about a week previously, says Sarah Zimmerman of the local alliance Balbriggan, Our Waters and Wild. “But the area has been scraped, right up to the riverbank.”
The works were done to make way for a security fence, Zimmerman says. “People have been climbing in there to have cans, god, I’d say for 20 years.”
Fingal County Council, though, has a bigger vision for the site than that. It falls within a wider redevelopment under its Our Balbriggan plan.
That plan envisions the centre of the town around Dublin Street and Bridge Street being opened up as part of a green corridor that would run through Mill Pond Park.
Zimmerman was dismayed when the vegetation was cut because an ecological survey of the park and river should have been done first, she says.
“They took out loads of scrubby habitat that had developed over the years,” she says. “There’s loads of birds, loads of small mammals.”
The council had sought a consultant to conduct the survey in the spring but couldn’t find anyone, she says.
But at a meeting between Our Balbriggan representatives and members of the Balbriggan, Our Waters and Wild group in mid-September, Deborah Tiernan, council biodiversity officer and parks superintendent, said the plan is now for field survey works to start early next year.
A council spokesperson said that as part of site-specific demolition works on the floodplain, an ecological survey had been carried out, which identified an invasive species.
Further surveys and assessments would be factored into the development of the site, they said.
A green corridor
There was briefly an outdoor cinema in Mill Pond Park four years back, says Malachy Quinn, strolling through the green space on a recent Sunday.
“It was fantastic. People came down and really enjoyed themselves,” says Quinn, a Sinn Féin local area representative.
But few, if any, activities have been organised since, he says, and the place feels underused. “There are lots of opportunities like that for Fingal to get a small win.”
The grounds host a skate park, built in 2019. “That was the site of a former pond,” says Terry O’Reilly of Balbriggan Tidy Towns. “It would’ve served the mills until it was filled in.”
In the 1970s, the pond was filled in, says Jennifer Mahon of Balbriggan, Our Waters and Wild. “That was done because there was a big flood, and the walls where the pond was burst.”
“It was the beginning of a parkland”, Quinn says, trudging through fallen leaves on the grass.
The council’s multi-million euro Our Balbriggan rejuvenation project to redevelop the town, includes plans to turn Mill Pond Park into a “green corridor”.
That, it says, will involve landscaping, walk- and cycle-ways, and the creation of a meadow and a managed wetland.
The council has also considered creating a new pond, which O’Reilly says could go some way to bringing back some of the area’s biodiversity. “One of the issues with the waterfall is that fish can’t get up it, because it’s man-made and too steep.”
Between €1.6 million and €1.9 million has been ringfenced for the Mill Pond Park bit of the scheme, with a completion date set for 2025.
The plan for a green corridor ties in with the redevelopment of Balbriggan’s main road, which consists of Dublin Street and the adjoining Bridge Street.
The council bought a detached home at 14 Bridge Street in 2021, as it wanted to create a new entrance into Mill Pond Park. The idea is to make a pedestrian and cycling route leading down to the harbour, according to a council press release from 1 September.
A council spokesperson says that it demolished 14 Bridge Street to make way for a temporary pocket park, which is due to be finished by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, behind a string of neighbouring buildings on the stretch of road, a series of annexes and outbuildings are set to be torn down next, the release says.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for Fingal County Council said that they also did an ecological survey as part of its site-specific demolition works behind Bridge Street, which identified an invasive species.
A solution for dealing with the invasive species will be included in the work programme for the development of the site, they said. “Further ecological surveys and assessments will be factored into the long-term options process.”
Since the demolition of number 14, the council’s communication as to its plans in the next phase of the green corridor have dried up, says Quinn. “People want to be kept informed, and they’re not.”
Zimmerman was caught off guard when she saw that the vegetation had been cleared behind the houses on Bridge Street, she says.
On 13 September, the Balbriggan, Our Water and Wild (BOWW) group had held a meeting with members of the Our Balbriggan’s town regeneration office.
But council plans to create a pocket park, erect a fence and clear the vegetation on the plain behind Bridge Street didn’t come up, she says. “They could’ve explained that to us, and it was upsetting to not be given key information that they’ve known for months.”
The group had written a letter to Our Balbriggan’s representatives, stressing the need to carry out an ecological survey of the area around the park and river before doing any work, Zimmerman says.
“Then, at the meeting, we were told they had been looking for someone to do a survey in April, May of this year,” she said.
Zimmerman says they were told that the council went to tender but couldn’t get a consultant to carry out the study.
According to the minutes of the meeting between BOWW and Our Balbriggan’s representatives, Breffni O’Rourke, a programme manager at Fingal County Council, said plans are in progress for a full ecological study of the Mill Pond Park corridor.
A new tender is due to be published later this year, said Deborah Tiernan, the council’s biodiversity officer and parks superintendent told BOWW at the meeting, with field survey works due to start in early 2024.
Knowing what is of value ecologically in the area is vitally important during the development of this green corridor, Zimmerman says. “There needs to be an ecological restoration of the river itself and then enhancing the biodiversity that is there.”
It shouldn’t become a heavily landscaped park, she says. “There is a cycle path going in and we need to make sure that’s set a good bit back from the river.”
Her concern is that the council’s priorities are not in the right order, she says. “They are quick to do the landscape plan, the neat and tidy thing, but it’s an oasis of nature.”
There is evidence of otters down in that area, O’Reilly says. “There are foxes and squirrels, but we don’t know what is in there.”
The council is working on creating a meadow, and that is something Zimmerman says she welcomes. “It doesn’t need much work. You don’t need hard edges on the river. They should be restoring the ecology of the river.”
UPDATE: This article was amended on 25 October 2023 at 5pm, to include comments from Fingal County Council.