At a special hearing on Thursday night attended by members of Falkirk Council, members of the public were among those given the opportunity to make their feelings known about the planned development.
The meeting also heard from David Jones, speaking on behalf of the developers, George Russell Construction, who said the visitor centre and café would bring an economic boost to the area.
He told councillors that the visitor centre – which will have a café, toilets, exhibition space and arts and craft workshop – would enhance the experience at what he called “this poorly provisioned attraction”.
Mr Jones said: “Visitors to the Pineapple currently have no facilities, restricted accessibility and no way to stay longer than the time it takes to see this iconic heritage resource.
“A visitor centre will allow longer stays, provide café and toilet facilities, interpretative exhibition displays, safe access for all and provide a focus for greater local economic activity in relation to jobs and support for local suppliers.”
The company’s plans, for the land belonging to Airth Mains Farm, also include upgrading the car park and the roads leading to The Pineapple, including a new roundabout on the A905.
But they say that the cost of all of this work means it will also be necessary to build 82 bungalows on the site at Airth Mains Farm to crossfund the visitor centre.
The developers say the house building will not affect local schools are they will only be sold to those aged over 55 with no children – and that will continue to be a condition.
Councillors were keen to find out more about how this will work in practice before they make their decision, which would be against the current local development plan.
They were also told by the NHS that housing for the over-55s might bring a high concentration of people with chronic health problems, leading to a strain on services.
And there are concerns that such housing would not be appropriate for such a rural setting with poor bus services, which could leave people isolated or dependent on cars.
Although the developers have promised to build a bus stop, the report points out that this is no guarantee that there would be a service to use it.
While the National Trust for Scotland – which owns the landmark building – did not attend the hearing, a full submission left no doubt that they are firmly against the plans.
The conservation charity stated that the visitor centre would be “a commercial building which has no aesthetic or functional relationship to The Pineapple or walled garden”.
That, together with the 82 houses, “would fundamentally alter the quality of place and the visitor experience, potentially diminishing the qualities that would attract visitors in the first place, and adversely affecting the setting of The Pineapple and walled garden.”
It also points out that The Pineapple site hosts a healthy population of great crested newts, which it feared the development would disturb.
The Trust also says that it is “making its own plans which will inevitably supersede those of the applicant”.
The applicant’s previous plans to create a visitor centre and just 22 houses had been welcomed by many locals who agreed that a café and toilet facilities in particular would be a welcome addition.
Airth Parish Community Council – which had supported the initial idea – said this time it would be ‘neutral’ as Covid had made it impossible to hold a public meeting to gauge opinion.
However, several members of the public did take the chance to voice their opposition and many others have written formally to the planning department with their objections.
Graham Henderson, who has lived in Airth for 16 years, said he wanted to stress how much the area meant to the many local people who enjoy the walks and views surrounding the village.
He said that he and others were not convinced that people over 55 would not mean there would be an impact on schools.
“With the National Trust objecting to this it seems absolutely clear that they don’t support it – and if they don’t support it why should we?” he said.
“There will also be an impact on wildlife – street lights will come with this along with light pollution and there will be noise and traffic.”
Another neighbour, Shona Lawrie, said the development is not in the Local Development Plan – which was only adopted in 2020.
“I think the visitor centre would be a fantastic addition – assuming the National Trust support it – but the proposal to build 82 homes, extending two kilometres from that site is totally unjustifiable.”
The hearing allows councillors to request more information that will help them make their final decision.
Councillor Laura Murtagh called for more detail on the capacity issues in local schools and health services to ensure that other housebuilding in the area is being taken into account.
She also wanted more clarity on how the restriction on people aged over 55 could be implemented legally and enforced if necessary.
And she asked for an in-depth look at land management issues, the environmental impact of the proposals and also the prospect of coalescence between Airth and Dunmore.
Councillor John McLuckie called for more expert opinion about the great crested newt population in the area.
Provost Billy Buchanan said that it was important that councillors saw the area for themselves and they agreed to hold a site visit on January 31.
A final decision will be taken at a future meeting.