The Malta Independent 23 July 2019, Tuesday

Angry Scenes as casting vote denies Portomaso its latest extension

Malta Independent Friday, 27 April 2012, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

When the vote came, at last, after four-and-a-half hours of a heated debate, Mepa chairman Austin Walker at first declared the vote to be 6 – 4.

But the Portomaso delegation, headed by Raymond Fenech, angrily shouted out that the chairman had counted wrongly. Indeed he did, for board secretary Sylvana Debono, who usually does that bit, was not present for the debate.

A recount was ordered: The chairman had voted against, as had the two DCC heads, Judge Giovanni Bonello and Dr Philip Manduca and Perit Joe Farrugia. The government appointees on the board all voted in favour, as did Roderick Galdes, MP.

Still on his feet, an angry Mr Fenech did not even let the chairman finish declaring he was using his casting vote to vote against the application. Mr Fenech insisted that the two board members who were absent – Joe Falzon MP and Charles Mercieca – should be asked what their vote would be, but this suggestion was met by cries of scorn from those opposing the application since, they said, Mepa never does things like that.

Still enraged, Mr Fenech then asked the chairman what motivation was he adducing for the refusal. When Mr Walker listed the reasons for refusal, helped by Vice Chairman Franco Montesin, Mr Fenech demanded whether the members who had voted against subscribed to the reasons mentioned by the chairman.

At that point, Mr Walker declared the matter settled and adjourned the meeting for a short break. However, as people moved out, there was a lot of murmuring from the Portomaso camp and some quite agitated exits from some Mepa officials.

It was clear that the Portomaso group had not counted on the application being turned down, though people conversant with Mepa matters felt the application could have been heading for refusal.

The application itself is a wonderful concept, based on ideas of similar developments in Polynesia.

A lagoon would be carved out next and above the marina and low lying top quality residences built around it. An island in the lagoon would serve as an eating point and privacy between residents would be ensured by means of plentiful foliage.

The water in the lagoon would be connected to the marina, thus replenishing the water there. Residents would have their own special elite drop off point and can also be connected to the Portomaso carpark by means of a tunnel.

The problem, as stated over the weekend by articles on practically all papers, was that the land on which this development would be built is land (at the end of the Cavalieri Hotel and next to one arm of the marina, which is, true, degraded, but on which development is banned according to the outline and then final permits for the Hilton development.

To be more exact, the two outline development permits had a clause saying that no further development would be allowed on the site. The clause said that however additions to existing conditions could be entertained. But the later full development permit was more categorical and said that no extension would be permitted.

The Portomaso applicants tried to argue that this referred to only part of the site, but a later check by Mepa showed that the application in question had included the whole site and thus the condition applied to the whole site.

It was also argued that the reason for the original refusal of any development in this area had its own particular reasons which are not valid today.

Adrian Vella, who prepared the EIA update, explained it all began long ago in 1992 when the Corinthia San Gorg was being built. That was when veteran botanist Edwin Lanfranco had identified an endemic plant on the site. The fledgling Planning Authority had taken steps to preserve this plant, the Wedgefood Grass. This was only the second time that something had been preserved – prior to that was the law preserving Filfla.

However, this plant is today to be found only in the carpark of the Corinthia. Then plans were drawn up to establish the ecological importance of two areas – one in il-Qaliet, which became the North Ecological Zone, and this area which was called the South Ecological Zone.

That was why the outline and full development permits banned any construction on the site. The Wedgefood Grass was found in this zone but later disappeared.

It is, Mr Mallia explained, a non-competitive plant and this was the reason why it grew next to the passage in the area.

When the area was closed off, due to this ecological concern, the passage was no longer used, and became overgrown with other weeds which seem to have killed off the Wedgefood Grass. No evidence of the plant has been found since 1999 and the site has become just a derelict wasteland.

However, the applicants, after talks with Mepa, agreed that the topsoil must be collected and stored on its own since it may still have seeds of this plant and the topsoil will later be replanted on top of the residences in this extension to provide a cool atmosphere and environment.

Architect Ray Demicoli pooh-poohed the amount of rock and soil to be excavated on site and said works will take two and a half years.

As to the Entrenchment Wall which runs all the way from St George’s Bay to Spinola, and was built by the Knights, extra care will go into its preservation. Due to concern the proposal would block vision of this wall, the applicants had shaved an entire floor from their proposed residences and the wall will thus now be in full view. Besides, the wall will be separated from any construction by a wide passageway.

Enforcement officer Omar Mizzi said the club house had been built without a permit and the boathouse was not covered by an application. So, it was argued, these were three separate sites.

But the main issue concerning the application regarded the conflict between the full permit which excluded any further development and the later Local Plan which on the contrary ruled that this area could be developed as long as the densities and height restrictions were respected.

The developers argued at great length that the Local Plan superceded the permit, while Mepa argued on the contrary that no local plan could overturn a permit which had been granted.

When the discussion was opened to the public, Architect Paul Gauci, on behalf of some residents, said this controversy showed how right were those who argued that the Development Control unit of Mepa should be kept separate from the Forward Planning Unit.

No local plan can overrule a given permit. He seriously queried the legality of the local plan , nor does the fact that the South Ecological Area was not scheduled mean this is no longer an ecological area.

Lawyer Ian Spiteri Bailey, also on behalf of some residents, began by congratulating the developers on a very imaginative concept. Even he, he added, dreams of setting up a top class football pitch where Barcelona could be invited to play against Bayern Munich but, since he has no ground to offer, the dream must remain a dream.

He warned Mepa against changing the conditions of the original permit. If Mepa does that it would undermine its own credibility and authority.

On behalf of the residents, last year he had submitted an Inhibitory Injunction to try and stop Mepa from processing this application. He had lost his case but the developers, who had already quoted a relevant part of the judgement previously, had not told the board the whole story, for the Court said that maybe the objectors are right, but the application at court was ahead of its time and it ordered Mepa to continue processing the application. Besides, there are illegalities on the site and if Mepa approved the application, it would be going down the wrong road.

Michael Spiteri and Alex Vella from the Ramblers Association added their arguments. Astrid Vella from Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar said that up to 1996, the public had access to the entire area. Now this was being restricted to a narrow strip of coastline. Besides, Portomaso’s official address was on Church Street, so many people had not made the connection between the application and this area.

Mr Fenech, from the Portomaso Group rebutted his company does things seriously. He asked how many residents is Dr Spiteri Bailey representing, adding that in the court case, he had presented buildings 10 storeys high. He was backed up by his legal consultant, Dr Briffa. Mr Fenech denied there will only be 4.5 metres left for public access on the shore; this was actually 16m.

Mepa chairman Austin Walker, speaking generally and not with regard to this application specifically, said it has become a favourite ploy when Mepa schedules anything to let that thing rot and become decrepit until it collapses.

The discussion among board members centred mainly whether the local plan supercedes permits or the other way round.

Towards the end of the discussion, Mepa CEO Ian Stafrace repeated a suggestion (made previously by Astrid Vella) that the only remedy would have been for the applicants to apply for a change of the full permit condition banning any further development in the area.

This suggestion, however, was not taken up by the applicants with the result that the vote, as stated, had the result it had.

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