The Malta Independent 18 April 2019, Thursday

Jobs Before birds: Mepa approves €30m Seabank extension

Malta Independent Friday, 5 February 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

It was quite a full house that turned up at yesterday’s Mepa board meeting, held as usual in St Francis Ravelin, until the crowd overfilled into the landing behind it.

But unusually, comparing it to the people who attended the recent controversial Mepa board meetings (the Freeport extension and the power station extension) most of the room seemed to be heavily in favour of the application.

There were the present and the past mayors of Mellieha, GRTU in full force, outlet owners, and even farmers from the area – who all spoke in favour of the application.

The sole negative voices were those of Astrid Vella, who was shouted down, and a guy from Zminijietna, who was cut off when he was deemed to have gone off the subject.

Originally submitted in 2005, the application was changed no less than seven times as the developers tried to cope with the various constraints on the site.

At first it was going to be a large but unobtrusive sprawl of bungalows but then Mepa ruled that the footprint had to remain as it is at present.

That led the developers to suggest various configurations, which entailed a massive block at the back, which then was deemed to be too high. So the application was changed again to keep the present height of the existing hotel.

The owners of the Riu Seabank Hotel plan to invest e30 million to add some 340 rooms, extending the hotel back up along the bypass.

The application also involved the building of a new reception area, landscaped gardens, pools and restaurants over an area of 18,069 square metres.

An underground carpark will be able to hold 200 cars.

Plans to add 2-storeys to the existing hotel were shelved. This means that the new wing will add 100 fewer rooms than originally planned.

In the consultations held by Mepa, MTA said it would have preferred a low lying development. The Department of Agriculture said the surrounding area is not very good agricultural land nor is the water there good for farming. Din l-Art Helwa objected as it deemed the application went against the Structure Plan and the local plan while Birdlife and Nature Trust raised concerns about the surrounding environment. The Mellieha local council agreed that agricultural land had to be preserved but also argued that tourism development was to be promoted.

The Environment Impact Statement underlined the uniqueness of the site along the watercourses of Wied Gnien Ingraw and Wied San Niklaw and the proximity of the site to Il-Hofra, one of the marshlands of the Ghadira isthmus.

Although the EIS agreed that the loss of agricultural land would be a major impact, it was less concerned about the impact of construction, through dust and noise over the surrounding areas. It also noted the development would have an impact on the cultural heritage remains in the area, notably a water reservoir, rubble walls and cart ruts.

As to the visual impact of the proposed development, the EIS presented a series of photomontages from various points surrounding the site, of which only two were said to have ‘minor to major visual impact’.

Mepa’s EPD disagreed with the EIS’s conclusions and said the visual impact would be major. It also expressed concern that an approval of this outline application would overlap one of the proposed alternative routes for the TenT road network still being evaluated by Mepa.

The directorate’s recommendation to the board was to grant the permit on condition that the building height remains that of the present building, that a bank guarantee of e100,000 plus a planning contribution of e150,000 is paid and that the site remains under a single owner and as a hotel only.

Reactions

When the Mepa chairman asked for reactions from the public, David Pisani from Zminijietna said the local plan laid out that the area was of agricultural value. Agricultural land is part of the Maltese culture. He also asked what reason could be given for a swimming pool, given the sea was so near.

Mellieha mayor Robert Cutajar said that this and preceding councils have been in favour of the application but had contributed to pressure to reduce the footprint and keep the same height. The Mellieha council is foresquare in favour of economic development of the area, although it is also in favour of sustainable development. The locality has 13 hotels, soon to become 14 and the council is very much in favour of development paying a planning gain which should be used in the upgrading of Ghadira Bay.

Mr Cutajar also asked Mepa to ban construction traffic from passing through Manikata. The council is unanimous in its support of the application.

This was also confirmed by Mr Cutajar’s predecessor, John Buttigieg. The present application is a different one from that submitted in 2005 as the developer took heed of the concerns that were expressed. Another thing which has changed is that the agricultural land surrounding the site was still being worked in 2005 but is neglected today.

Andrea Reine, from Birdlife expressed concern about the impact of light pollution on the birds in the area, both the Yelkoan Shearwater colony at Rdum tal-Madonna and also on the birds that flock to Il-Hofra and the ‘Natura 2000’ Nature Reserve. Besides, there will also be noise pollution and dust during construction.

Taking away agricultural land would set a precedent.

The proposed development goes against the Mellieha ethos since Mellieha is marketing itself as an eco-destination. This is one of the last untouched areas in Malta.

Astrid Vella on behalf of Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar and the Ramblers said all Mepa’s rules are being broken. She read a list from the Mepa law and said approval would encourage further development in such areas. The Mepa Ghadira Isthmus Policy itself says that uncontrolled development could lead to more dangers for the environment of the area.

As for the height reduction, this was irrelevant: One could ask to go sky-high and then accept to lower the height.

FAA is not against the hotel expansion, nor against promoting the tourism development in Mellieha but the real Mellieha identity lies in agro-tourism, such as pratised by the Mellieha Holiday Complex. The Mellieha local council was recently awarded the EU award as a destination of excellence.

This hotel could benefit from tourism in summer but more so in winter were it to promote itself as an agro-tourism venue. If instead it goes the way of other resort hotels, it would go the way similar hotels had gone in Qawra and Bugibba. A resort hotel does not give benefit to the surroundings: Many tourists who frequent resort hotels go straight there from the airport and remain there.

FAA agrees with jobs being increased but not as is done by other hotels who favour the low end of the market. Approving such an application would contribute to scare away quality tourists.

This hotel began as a bar, then as a guesthouse. There is no need for it to grow more.

Protected species such as frogs and bats are to be found not just at Il-Hofra but also in the field next to it.

She then presented the board with a series of photomontages done by the same studio as used by the EIS consultants but which showed the proposed hotel like a big, monolithic blast of building obliterating and overshadowing the area.

Quoting the Natural Heritage Committee, Ms Vella ended by warning that by no stretch of the imagination can this be considered as a ‘restrained development’ and she warned the Mepa board that they were opening the way to the ‘uglification of Malta’ – another Bugibba.

Simon Chetcuti from GRTU’s developers section argued for the application even though the area is ODZ. Besides, the site is already committed.

Tony Gauci, a Mellieha resident, denied that tourists stay in the hotel: How otherwise would one explain the many residents that have sprouted nearby? In his time, there were only three students going to school on the bus: Today there are hundreds. Mellieha has changed through tourism: The women from Mellieha no longer need to go and work as maids in Sliema. Today, students from Mellieha study and manage hotels.

Godfrey Bartolo, a businessman from Mellieha said Mellieha needs such investments. Besides, Il-Hofra is full of rubbish. He was joined by a businesswoman from Mellieha.

GRTU’s Vince Farrugia said GRTU had been talking to the developer and persuaded him to limit the development. Those against the development should come up with scientific arguments, not rhetoric or emotions. All concerns that have been raised have been addressed by the developer. Blocking the development would stop job creation. Unless this development is approved, the existing hotel would not be sustainable any more but no committed site has ever been returned to nature. There will always be a negative side to development; what one can do is to restrain development and bring about a sense of balance.

Ms Vella emphasised FAA is not against the hotel expansion or the creation of jobs but asks for a lower profile. She argued that Mepa must not rush things. But Mr Farrugia, quick on his feet, said this application has been five years in the works. Meanwhile the whole world tackled the biggest recession in history in just one and a half years.

Charles Attard, a farmer from the area, said the area is not good for agriculture, as proved by the bad quality of the produce, also due to seawater infiltrations. Besides, the soil is only a feet high. It was originally garigue and the farmers had turned it into agricultural land.

Speaking on behalf of the developer, John Zarb described the project as one of great courage. The existing hotel was not viable: It had to be upgraded and enlarged.

Mepa chairman Austin Walker said all could now understand how difficult the decisions faced by the board were: They had to seek balance after a deliberation done in public, even though the board and its members are many times accused of being in the pockets of someone.

Adrian Mallia, the consultant who did the EIA, argued that the photomontages shown by Ms Vella were not correct. FAA’s Mr Portelli had confessed at a public hearing held last November that they had been obtained through zooming.

Agricultural expert Dr Buhagiar confirmed that the area was not good for agriculture due to sea spray. Sea infiltration in the water table and very shallow soil.

As for light pollution, Mr Reine’s arguments sounded as though Mellieha and the lights in the bay did not exist. Had there been no light, the light from this development would have had a significant impact. But this is not the case. Nor is it true the development would double the light pollution. Besides, the external lighting of the existing hotel will be subdued.

Ms Vella, who had meanwhile been in contact with FAA’s Mr Portelli, denied that zooming was used in the photomontages. This was done by the same studio as used by the consultant.

She then went on the attack: This is the same developer who does not have a good track record of obeying the rules – look at what happened at Tunny Net.

This provoked an outburst in the hall and Mr Walker stopped Ms Vella.

When the application was finally discussed by the Mepa board, MP Roderick Galdes obtained a clarification that most of the new development would be towards the back and under the level of the Mellieha ByPass.

Board member Charles Bonnici asked about the RO discharge into the bay and whether this would affect the Mellieha efforts to turn the bay into a Blue Flag one. He asked why could not the outflow be further out than the bathing area. Joe Muscat, the developer’s engineer said that the effluent was minuscule.

MP Joe Falzon pointed out that there had been considerable improvement in the design and the board’s suggestions were taken up.

Just before the board was asked to vote, Mr Zarb tried to argue that the planning gain and the bond being asked for were duplicating the expense. He asked for them to be staggered and this was accepted. But Mr Walker clarified there was no duplication: The planning gain was arrived at by the usual formula of e5 per sq metre. Mr Zarb tried to argue that there was a difference between building a block of flats and a development such as this but this did not bring any reaction.

The board then voted unanimously to approve the development.

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