Church's mini-village plan for Ballymena meets opposition
Online campaign to halt 97-acre Project Nehemiah
An online campaign has been launched against the building of a sprawling church complex complete with a 60-bedroom hotel, 400 houses, supermarket and petrol station on the outskirts of Ballymena.
The church, Green Pastures, paid £4m for the 97-acre site in Co Antrim last year and recently submitted its proposals for the area to the planning authorities.
The plans have upset some residents, however, who claim the huge development will damage an area they claim is popular with walkers and wildlife enthusiasts.
The evangelical church, set up in 2007, has lodged three planning applications for the site at Ballee, near Ballymena.
As well as church buildings and residential houses, Green Pastures is seeking planning permission for a BMX track, sports pitch, drive-thru restaurant, garden centre, eight shop units, a business park and a training centre.
The new church building is at the centre of the huge development.
The project has been named Project Nehemiah, after the Old Testament figure who rebuilt Jerusalem.
But residents and wildlife lovers say the area should be left "as God intended it".
Almost 800 people have signed up to a Facebook page entitled 'The real Green Pastures' in recent weeks on which pictures of the rolling green fields and picturesque scenery of the site are regularly posted.
The page reads: "Fields of green created by God to be turned into concrete to glorify God? Something not right with that!"
Another post reads: "What (do) you all think of this redevelopment of lush green fields into a concrete jungle ironically called Green Pastures?"
Another wrote: "This is about a beautiful wee oasis being destroyed, a place that God gave us to go when we needed peace from modern life – why build a church when we have this lovely place to go to and thank whoever your maker is for leaving this wee spot untouched?"
The Belfast Telegraph contacted the administrator of the page but they did not respond.
Green Pastures said the houses, when completed, would be available to rent or buy by people not affiliated with the church. A leisure complex is also planned including an outdoor pursuit centre and family entertainment section with restaurants and a holiday chalet park.
The scheme includes the part realignment of the nearby river, the Ballee Burn, with Green Pastures claiming work on the river will enhance fish stocks and boost local wildlife.
A member of Green Pastures defends the work on the Facebook protest page.
She wrote: "The land is beautiful, the wildlife is beautiful, just as our beautiful Father God created them.
"But the souls of Ballee and Ballymena are far more precious to God than the fields and the trees, so precious that He sent His only son to die that they would have life and have it abundantly.
"Green Pastures church is embarking on this project out of love for the community in a deprived area of Ballymena."
Should the plans get the go-ahead, bulldozers could be on the site next year, with the entire project due to be completed within the next seven to 10 years.
Denis O'Hara's family has links to the land dating back to 1623.
Around 38 acres of the site was subject to a compulsory purchase order, meaning the Government took control of the land in 1970, paying his father £45,000.
Mr O'Hara was part of a consortium which tried to buy the 97-acre site last year.
"That land sat for 40 years," he said.
"My childhood memories revolve around the land.
"I have no issue with the church, it is the Government departments involved."
He said he was aware of people's environmental concerns, adding it still "grated" with him that his family had been unable to take control of the land.
The Belfast Telegraph contacted Green Pastures regarding the development and environmental concerns.
A spokeswoman provided a statement to this newspaper which was drafted by the planning consultancy firm handling the project on behalf of the church. It read: "The Ballee lands – an obvious extension of the town – have been zoned by DoE Planning for development for several decades now so people have got used to having access.
"We have recognised this from the outset.
"Our plans have been informed by a full environmental assessment which has ensured that the best of the local ecology and habitat is incorporated into proposals for an extensive network of greenways through the site.
"During public consultation on the proposals there was widespread support for the principle that local people should continue to be able to enjoy access to the area, particularly the linear park alongside Ballee Burn.
"We hope that the transformational redevelopment of the lands will encourage people from Ballee and beyond to access the area in future."
Martin Clarke, a DUP councillor in Ballymena and deputy chair of Ballymena Borough Council's growth and development committee, said he had no concerns over the environmental impact of the scheme.
Mr Clarke said he had been told of plans for a lake on the site which he felt would alleviate any impact on local wildlife.
"They certainly have big ideas and if it comes to fruition it certainly will be a good thing for that part of the town," he said.
"I think it sounds good.
"All developments started off as green fields, Ballymena was green fields in the past," added the councillor.
* 60-bedroom hotel
* 40-bedroom nursing home
* 431 homes
* Full-size 3G sports pitch
* BMX track
* Wedding chapel
* Petrol station
* Garden centre
* Drive-thru restaurant
* Family entertainment centre
* Health centre
* Eight commercial units
* Taxi office
* Two restaurants
* Business park