Woodland activity centre planned

Thursday 2nd January 2014 12:00 am

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A WOODLAND activity centre could be created at Nutcombe Bottom as part of plans to dramatically increase visitor numbers at the Crown Estate-owned site.

A purpose-built visitor "hub", a treetop high ropes courses and specialist mountain biking facilities could all be created within the conifer plantation near Dunster.

The Crown Estate is also pledging to make improvements to the junction of the A396 with the sole access route through Bonniton Lane and to create car parking for up to 50 vehicles.

The plans will be discussed by members of Exmoor National Park Authority's planning committee in the new year, but have already come in for criticism from the conservation charity the Exmoor Society.

The society has raised "concerns" about the increased number of vehicles likely to be accessing the site off Whitswood Steep and the potential for bikers to stray from the allocated cycle routes.

In a letter to the authority, the society said: "While [we] are in favour of developments which increase the potential for public enjoyment of the national park . . . we have a number of concerns with this application.

"The site is accessed from the A396 along a very narrow lane.

"The applicant indicates the lane presently has 12 informal passing places along its length.

"These are barely more than places where, use over the years has widened the road slightly, by vehicles driving off the Tarmac surface.

"An increased number of vehicles is likely to increase this potentially undesirable situation."

In its own application, the Crown Estate estimates the development could swell the current 12,000 visitors a year to between 15,000 and 20,000.

The society said improved passing places should be created in the access lane and called for conditions to keep cyclists on the allocated paths and to prevent the site being used for large-scale mountain biking competitions.

"Experience from other locations, including in national parks, indicates that when cyclists have become tired of using the facilities provided for them they extend their day by riding elsewhere.

"This could have an adverse effect on the quiet enjoyment and safety of pedestrians and horse riders using bridleways and paths in the rest of the woodland area," the society said.

The Crown Estate said its plans were designed to improve the "visitor experience" and to further promote the special qualities of the area.

The hub building would be a central information point for visitors to collect details and maps about trails and footpaths and to learn more about the flora and fauna.

The woodland earmarked for the high ropes and bike trails was already used for recreational purposes, including the existing Tall Trees Trail, picnic facilities and a woodland play area.

The Crown Estate said: "The fundamental aim underlying the proposals is to provide an enhanced visitor experience at Nutcombe Bottom and provide a broader range of opportunities for people from all backgrounds and interests to come into the woodland and understand and enjoy its special qualities.

"Central to this is a proposed visitor/hub building.

The building would provide a central point for visitors to come and find information about Nutcombe Bottom, its special qualities, the importance of the woodland, the diversity of wildlife it holds and also provide them with various amenities to ensure they are comfortable while they visit."

Although the plans will be discussed at January's meeting of the park authority's planning committee, members will not be asked to make a decision.

Instead, they will consider an interim report, with a final decision likely to be made in February.

Officers have yet to receive the views of highways chiefs and said that would be crucial when considering the "appropriateness of the access".

In the interim report, planning officers described the Crown Estate's proposals as a "small scale major application".

They said: "The site provides a popular recreational destination and the Nutcombe Bottom site itself is judged to have the capacity to accommodate the bicycle trails, high ropes course and hub building without causing unacceptable harm.

"The impact of development on the character and appearance of the landscape and local amenity is also judged to be acceptable.

"Further information is required relating to the potential impact of development on ecology.

"The suitability of the highway access provision is a key issue in determining the overall acceptability of the proposed development."

Officers will tell members a number of outstanding negotiations will need to be completed before a final report is written.

In January, the committee will be asked to consider whether a site visit is needed and if other information is required to enable a decision to be made in due course.

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