DESIGNATION of the Larne promenade as a site of global geological importance would preclude any development, Larne councillors were told this week.
In the next few months it will be known if the town’s unique 200 million-year-old Jurassic rock formations will be protected by Global Sequence Stratotype and Point (GSSP) status.
The news conveyed by the Environment and Heritage Service and the Ulster Museum to the council’s environment committee has far-reaching ramifications. The Department of the Environment is to adjudicate on a Larne consortium’s controversial proposal to build a marina and apartments complex at the promenade and the council has been in a state of flux over the proposal for several years.
In layman’s terms, if the Waterloo rocks fend off competition from sites in British Columbia, Nevada and Austria, the site will be accorded the equivalent of world heritage site status. And the GSSP - or ‘Golden Spike’ - award would render the promenade as inviolable as The Giant’s Causeway.
Indeed, Ulster Museum spokesman Mike Simms said geologists from all over the world who already visit the Causeway in large numbers, would also be attracted to Larne.
He believed Larne had an edge over its international rivals as the prime global example of Upper Triassic to Lower Jurassic rock exposure as it is the most accessible site. Visitors could view the formations from the promenade at low tide, without having to clamber over the rocks, he explained.
“We really only realised how important the Larne site is in the past year or so,” Dr Simms said. Until lately it had been thought a site on the shore of the Bristol was the prime example, “but Larne is better”, he said.
Whether it wins golden spike status or not, he predicted, “Larne will become a world centre for geology”, adding that causing any damage to the site is an offence, punishable by a fine up to 20,000.
The distinctive rock formations on either side of the promenade have already been identified as an Area of Special Scientific Interest, as EHS conservation science official Michael Dempster explained.
Surprisingly, however, the scientists are not pressing for the removal of the sewer pipe that crosses the rocks. Councillor Michael Lynch had thought it might be preferable, but Dr. Simms said, “Yes, it’s an eyesore, but it’s also a very, very useful marker”. He joked, “It’s part of the character of the place as well.”
The Mayor, Ald Danny O’Connor, suggested investment in signage on the promenade to interpret for visitors the scientific importance of the area and urged that the council should now take steps to ensure protection for the site. “Otherwise,” he commented, “this apartment thing is going to run and run.”
Ald O’Connor said, “If we are serious about protecting our environment and taking it a step beyond that, we have got to be honest and say, ‘Here is the road we’re going down - to protect the promenade so that the public can have access to this type of site’.”
He added, “There is phenomenal potential because the Antrim Coast Road is already world famous and so is the Giant’s Causeway. This is something that can attract people to the other end of the Coast Road.”
Dr Simms agreed it was “important to protect the site from any sort of development”. He explained, “It might not do direct damage to the site, but as soon as you change the wave pattern you don’t know what might happen.”
Cllr Roy Craig believed funding would be necessary to afford adequate protection and he encouraged both the EHS and the museum to support the council in attaining grants.
The expert speakers had explained the Waterloo ASSI extends along the promenade from the leisure centre and along the Coast Road as far as Garron Point, including mud flows at Minnis Point. Ald Roy Beggs asked if it is the only such site in Northern Ireland. He also asked, “Is it essential or desirable that the entire identified area be protected?”
Dr Simms said there are other partial sites in the province, “but nowhere do you see a complete section virtually unbroken for 105 million years and nowhere near as accessible.”
He continued, “I would say it is important to protect the entire site as it stands.”
Cllr Martin Wilson asked the scientists if they could provide evidence that development would detract from the geological site. Mr Dempster replied that EHS would have to be consulted on any proposal. He explained that the agency would always err on the side of caution - “If we couldn’t decide, or if couldn’t be demonstrated that there would be any adverse effect we would have to take the precautionary approach to it”, he said.
After Ald O’Connor asked if the council should reassert the public right of way on the promenade, Ald McKee urged against any “knee-jerk” reaction and Cllr Brian Dunn proposed and the committee accepted that the council’s countryside officer should liaise with EHS and the Ulster Museum and bring to the council a report on short and long-term proposals for the site.