THE controversial scheme for a new model village on York's outskirts has suffered a fresh setback - with the discovery of great crested newts on the site.

Objectors to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation's 540-home Derwenthorpe scheme say that they and an ecologist found two of the newts in five minutes while carrying out a torchlight search one night earlier this month.

English Nature (EN), confirming the discovery, said that legislation made it an offence to deliberately capture, kill or disturb the newts, or even to damage their breeding or resting sites.

And the conservation organisation is recommending that further survey work should be conducted before an outline planning application - already delayed for several months - is considered by City of York Council.

It says a suitably qualified ecological consultant should carry out an appropriate survey and evaluation and, if necessary, also come up with an impact assessment, and avoidance and mitigation measures.

The foundation said today that the alleged discovery of the newts nine months after its own assessment had failed to find any was "disappointing."

Director of development Nigel Ingram said it would be for the council to decide whether it took EN's advice and delayed consideration of the plans for a series of newt surveys.

But he said he was concerned that, if a major delay was caused, some of the Government funding for affordable housing at Derwenthorpe - which has been allocated for 2004/05 - could be lost.

The foundation had originally hoped that planners would consider the application before Christmas, and then in the spring and it recently hoped it would be decided at a meeting today.

But Mr Ingram said he understood it could not come before planners yet, because the Environment Agency was still considering proposals to prevent the development worsening flooding risks elsewhere.

Osbaldwick Parish Council chairman Malcolm Kettlestring and Temple Avenue resident Adrian Wilson told today how they found the newts.

Mr Kettlestring said that after a former parish councillor had informed him that great crested newts were apparently found on the site in 1992, he and Mr Wilson, accompanied by an ecologist James Mortimer, had visited the site after dark on Thursday, May 13.

Mr Wilson said: "Within five minutes, armed with torches, we had located a couple of great crested newts."

He also said he believed that newt surveys usually had to be carried out in the spring. "As we are now moving into summer, it may not be until next spring that such a survey can be carried out," he claimed.

He understood that either the newt habitat would have to be retained, or an alternative habitat would have to be created elsewhere and the newts relocated.

City of York Council said today it was looking into the issue. "If protected species are found at the site, we will work with English Nature and other interested parties to ensure their safety."

News of the discovery comes as residents prepare to give a presentation to planners at 5pm today on their concerns about the Derwenthorpe scheme.

Updated: 10:32 Wednesday, May 26, 2004