Saturday, 15 August 2009

PR on Bahrija development - Environment groups want all permits withdrawn

Ramblers' Association, Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar and Nature Trust consider it a waste of time and resources that the Mepa Board decided to revoke only the last permit issued to Dr Scerri for the development on the Bahrija Valley floor. The fact that the decision was almost unanimous does not increase the NGOs’ faith in the Mepa Board if their decision implies the endorsement of the previous three building permits. For it is clearly evident and it has been amply certified by the Mepa Auditor that similar irregularities prevailed in both the original permit (PA 2835/00) and the subsequent permit which now allegedly comes in force (PA 6321/02). All three development applications were issued contrary to approved policy, and as confirmed by the Mepa Auditor, were issued illegally.

In the opinion of the NGOs the same Board sitting should have applied the same Art 39a also to the two previous applications on the grounds of false declarations, in that the site was wrongly described as level and the existing buildings misleadingly described “existing dwellings” The Mepa auditor pronounced in clear terms that there was “a puerile attempt at misleading” the Authority all along because the applicant never meant to rehabilitate but “wanted to demolish whatever existed on site and rebuild a new building.”

The Board should have realized that the four applications cannot be taken individually but must be treated holistically as the Architect masterfully intended and drew them.

The NGOs note with satisfaction that Mr Seychell, Head of the Environment Directorate, made it amply clear that the Bahrija valley floor is protected by the EU’s Habitats Directive against any development that will not enhance the ecological system there, and any new development in SAC needs full permission from the EPD. For this reason they call on Mepa to do its duty and insist that the site be restored to its former state.

The NGOs take this opportunity to point out that other applications by architects known for their scarce respect for the environment have been, and are still being, processed with similar irregularity. It is hoped that Mepa will act in good time to halt these applications before they reach the Mepa Board stage.

They have always been careful to adopt an apolitical approach in the protection of the environment and condemn indiscriminately architects and speculators who break or bend the rules, as well as the various boards and directorates within MEPA when these reach decisions which run counter to Policies.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Baħrija permit revoked

From the Times of Friday 14th August 2009

The planning authority yesterday revoked the controversial permit issued to former PN president Victor Scerri to extend his planned farmhouse in Baħrija - but the whole affair is not over yet.

The revocation means that his application for the extension will now have to pass through an environmental screening process due to the sensitive nature of the site, a necessary step that was ignored when the permit was approved in 2007.

The revocation of the permit was just the beginning of the process, Dr Scerri said when contacted after the board had made its decision.

"We will allow things to take their due course but we will definitely not be withdrawing the application since my wife and I have done nothing wrong," he insisted.

The decision does not affect an earlier permit, issued in 2003 and amended in 2005, for the reconstruction of a dilapidated farmhouse on the site of natural beauty.

That permit is still valid but the planning authority's Environment Protection Directorate (EPD) yesterday cautioned that any negative impact on the area from the work would have to be mitigated.

The controversy over Dr Scerri's planned development, to which environment NGOs had objected vociferously, came to a head in June when he resigned from the post of PN president in order to be able to defend himself outside of his political ties.

In a report published the next day, Mepa auditor Joe Falzon concluded that the last permit issued, for the extension of the farmhouse, went against the law.

Mr Falzon also raised doubts about the legality of the original permit since the plans submitted by the architect did not take into account the sloping nature of the site.

Acting on a recommendation of the EPD, the authority's board yesterday agreed that an important screening process had been ignored on the Natura 2000 site.

With eight votes in favour and one against, the board applied Article 39 (A) of the Development Planning Act which allows it to withdraw a permit if the application process is found not to have followed the procedure set out at law.

The Nationalist Party representative on the board, Joseph Falzon, voted in favour of the revocation. The only member to vote against was Joseph Tabone Jiacono, a government appointee.

EPD head Martin Seychell said the directorate had concluded that the site where the farmhouse was to be built needed to be screened since in its opinion the development would have a negative impact on the ecology of the area.

He explained that part of the zone had been given the highest level of protection granted by law in 1996, which meant that development was prohibited and any interventions to improve the site had to be kept to a bare minimum.

After that, in 2006, the area became a Natura 2000 site, which meant that any development application would need to pass through an additional screening process.

Mr Seychell said the EPD could not exclude that the development would have a "significant" negative impact on the site during construction and afterwards. He particularly pointed to the dangers posed by the sewage generated by the farmhouse, which risked contaminating the valley floor during periods of heavy rainfall.

In view of his department's conclusions, Mr Seychell said that the lack of a proper assessment was an "error on the face of the record" and Article 39 (A) had to be invoked.

Lawyer Franco Vassallo, who spoke on behalf of the Scerris, insisted on knowing who should have been responsible for recommending the screening process since at no time had it been suggested by any of Mepa's case officers or the Development Control Commission board members.

"An error has to have a perpetrator," he said.

Mepa chairman Austin Walker tried to deflect the lawyer's question insisting it was not the function of the board to determine who was to blame.

"It is not the DCC that carries out the assessment but in my opinion the obligation to determine the need for screening was both Mepa's and the applicant's," Mr Walker insisted.

Dr Vassallo rebutted the statement, insisting that the law did not put the onus on the applicant to decide whether the screening process had to be held.

"My client should not shoulder the blame. An applicant only has an obligation to make an assessment if asked to do so by the DCC or the directorate and in this case there was never such a request," Dr Vassallo said.

Monday, 3 August 2009

PR: NGOs request investigation on Qala permit.

Il-Bukkett before and after

NGOs request investigation on Qala permit.

The DCC Board has just approved another application (PA7810/06) irregularly in a sensitive Category 1 ODZ rural settlement, this time in the eco-island (sic) of Gozo. Following so soon upon the Bahrija debacle, nine NGOs comprising Ramblers’ Association of Malta, Nature Trust, Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, Friends of the Earth, BirdLife Malta, Din l-Art Helwa, GAIA, Malta Organic Agriculture Movement, and Light Pollution Awareness Group cannot understand, and would again like to query, why MEPA persists in disrespecting its own internal regulations and continues to freely interpret Local Plan policies, breaking them flagrantly at will.

The location is none other than the “Il-Bukkett” complex on the panoramic road that from Mgarr leads to Qala, overlooking the scenic coastline of Southern Gozo and the panoramic view of the Comino Channel with the Blue Lagoon and the Maltese Island beyond. The Board irrationally granted permission, in this Category 1 ODZ rural settlement placed on a site of high landscape value, to turn the present low lying rural “casa-bottega” restaurant into a multi-storey imposing development that will involve the construction of "additional floors, the demolition of dwellings and construction of new units with a pool, the construction of an underground basement parking as well as the sanctioning of infringements at the existing commercial area."

It is already suspect that the designation of “rural settlement” (and the development potential that comes with it) has been accorded to just this and another structure which were previously out of development zone. Far larger clusters have been denied that designation.

In spite of valid arguments put forward against the development by the Local Council of Qala and others, in spite of the well-informed recommendations of the Case Officers to dismiss reconsideration of the application, the DCC board irrationally overruled and decided to break Structure Plan and Local Plan policies with the usual nonchalance. What had been refused for 7 valid reasons by the same Board only a few months before was reconsidered and approved after the applicant made alterations so minor that 6 of the 7 valid reasons were not adequately addressed.

In fact the application remains objectionable because it infringes (i) Policy GZ-RLST-1: unacceptability of basements and need of side gardens; (ii) Policy GZ-Hous-1: the mixture and inclusion of large commercial areas in a purely residential zone is unacceptable; (iii) Policy 2.7 of the Policy and Design Guidance 2005: development disrespects the topography of the site; (iv) GZ-EDGE-2, BEN 2 & Policy & Design Guidelines 2005 on the sensitive design of the valley side of developments, where the mitigation of visual impact is of tantamount relevance; (v) Policy RCO 4: devalues the high scenic value of area. The permit is also at fault with respect to normal parking requirements.

Both the Directorate and the DCC treated very lightly an unclear situation regarding a claim of illegality of part of the structure. More emphasis should have been laid on the existing illegality and the consequential lack of any attempt to include it in the sanctioning request, considering that this is such a sensitive site. This premise alone should render the permit null. It is unexplainable that building infringements were here ignored and permits issued when an almost adjacent habitation was denied water and electricity services for years and had its windows wall up because of building infringements.

Furthermore, the Local Plans Unit allowed a basement in violation of the area policy on which the Local Plan is very clear. In such a prominent first-impression location of pristine landscape value, visible to all arriving visitors from the ferry, any development proposal should be totally screened and definitely should not be highly obtrusive as this development will be (see montage). In this case the Local Plans Unit irrationally assigned a commanding role to the urbanization policy GZ-RLST-1 over the environment policy GZ-RECR-4, in a rural setting with high scenic value, when the opposite should have been applied.

The insensitive development will have serious repercussions on the remainder of the belvedere road, will lead to more ribbon development (this time between Mgarr and Qala), will impact negatively the visual impression that visitors first get, and irreversibly destroy the landscape value of the cliff face of the southern coast of Gozo.

The nine NGOs, backed by the Local Council of Qala, have called formally on the MEPA Auditor to immediately investigate this irrational DCC decision, certainly not taken in the best interests of Gozo.