A village green preservation society in Devon has lost its battle to officially register a cherished strip of land due to “a technicality”.
The group of residents of Atherington, a community near Umberleigh of around 60 houses, hope a fresh approach to the county council could protect the land from the clutches of developers.
But there are serious concerns that missing out on the designation could allow plans to build 10 new homes to go forward with an access road ploughed through the land.
Retired Royal Navy Lt Cdr Tony Riley, a leading member of the Atherington Conservation Area Committee, said they felt they had “won the moral argument but lost on a technicality”.
“We feel justified in that the inspector agreed with us that it met the criteria that it was used as a village green,” he added.
“The vibe we are getting from the planning department is that they don’t see there is a problem (with the access road cutting through the land) though the highways department did object to it initially.
“We are hoping that Devon County Council might put the land into a trust with the parish but if and when the housing plans come to the planning committee we will make our representations.”
Once the village school playground, the parish has maintained the land for more than 40 years, beginning on an annual rent of £1 which is now around £30.
But when plans to build 10 houses in the village were unveiled in 2007, it became apparent that it was not as safe as many had thought.
Because when attempts were made by would-be builders to buy the land and put an access road through its heart, it emerged that the Church of England were unable to prove its ownership - and so far neither has anyone else.
Land can be registered as a green if local people can demonstrate 20 years use for recreation, without challenge or permission and once registered the land is protected from development.
Some 54 people came forward with their memories of using the area.
A public inquiry was held in November at Umberleigh Village Hall, to consider the application to register Atherington Conservation Area as a village green under the Commons Act of 2006 section 15(2).
The two-day hearing failed to shed further light on who owns the strip of grass, which has played host to village fetes and jubilee celebrations as far back as the 1920s.
The inspector ruled last month that it met the criteria, for enough people to have used it for sport and pastimes over a 20-year period, but said the case hinged on whether this was “‘by right’ or with permission rather than ‘as of right’”.
However, it was the existence of a 1972 peppercorn rental agreement between the parish council and the council highways department which swayed the decision.
Inspector Barney Grimshaw said: “It is my view that, since 1972 (or possibly since around 1981), use of the application land by the inhabitants of the locality has been by permission in accordance with the provisions of the 1972 Lease and not ‘as of right’ as is required to meet the criteria set out in the 2006 Act.”