Residents and landowner at loggerheads over access to Ringhaddy shoreline route
Battle lines have been drawn in a peaceful corner of Strangford Lough where a popular walking route along the shore has been blocked off.
According to Strangford DUP MP Jim Shannon, the row over the route along the shore at Ringhaddy, near Killinchy, is a highly contentious one with large numbers of local residents keen to see it reopened.
Both ends of the route were blocked off three years ago and in recent weeks further fencing has been erected with signs saying 'Keep Out'.
The route, which leads along the stony loughshore from Ringhaddy Road to Quarterland Road, was blocked at both ends in 2011 and for the past three years Down District Council has been gathering evidence for the existence of a public right of way.
Residents say this process has unearthed a wealth of historical evidence dating back hundreds of years showing that the route was used to move cattle, horses and heavy goods.
Developer Christopher Canning, who owns the land where the disputed shoreline route runs, told the Belfast Telegraph he hadn't broken any laws as no right of way has been asserted.
"A public right of way is only a public right of way when it is asserted by the council and at the moment there is no public right of way.
"I am allowed to fence my own land," he said.
"If the council asserts the public right of way and I block it, then I am at fault. At this stage I haven't broken any laws."
In recent weeks, Down District Council has placed newspaper adverts giving notification that it intends to assert a public right of way at Ringhaddy and calling for anyone with an interest in it to come forward.
A spokesman said the council had also erected notices at the entrance to the route on July 23 giving the same information but an unknown person or persons removed them later that day.
The council reinstated the statutory notices on July 25 but they were again removed.
A new gate and warning sign were erected across the entrance to the disputed route during the same week.
The spokesman added: "Down District Council is currently investigating an alleged public right of way between the Ringhaddy Road and the Quarterland Road, Killinchy under the Access to the Countryside (NI) Order 1983.
"As the current investigation is ongoing the council has yet to come to a final conclusion on the matter as further procedural matters relating to the Access Order need to be undertaken.
"No public right of way has been asserted at this location.
"Prior to council taking any decision on the matter all interested parties will be informed."
Mr Shannon said battle lines have been drawn over the issue and there have been concerns about how a number of recent planning applications would impact on the right of way.
"We have an issue to address. I've been in touch with Down District Council and I understand that the council is intending to assert it as a right of way," he said.
"The process is ongoing but we are hopeful that the wealth of knowledge which there is here and the historical facts that are available will prove the case indisputably that it is a right of way.
"There hasn't been a great policy [on rights of way in Northern Ireland] over the years and there hasn't been a lot of precedent in relation to it, so that would have some concern for us.
"But I've had extensive correspondence with local people and there is evidence going back two or three generations that there has been a right of way here for over 100 years."
A public right of way is a highway which any member of the public may use as of right; not a privilege granted by the landowner. It may be created specifically or through 'deemed dedication' (by the public openly using a path for a period of time) with the knowledge of the landowner. It may be limited to certain users, for example walkers only or walkers and horse riders. It is a permanent legal entity and remains in existence unless the path is extinguished or diverted by due legal process. It must be respected by the occupier and landowner who should do nothing to obstruct the right of way or prevent or intimidate anyone from exercising their rights of passage.