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.

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