The Malta Independent 11 December 2018, Tuesday

Watch: Activists dragged out of PA building by police; application for fuel station refused

Kevin Schembri Orland Thursday, 13 September 2018, 11:05 Last update: about 4 months ago

Environmental activists were physically dragged out by the police while protesting in the entrance to the Planning authority boardroom, where yet another controversial fuel station application was being heard.

The activists had, for a time, successfully disrupted the meeting, blocking off the entrance and making enough noise for the meeting to stall.

In an attempt to come through the boardroom door when they originally arrived, the activists jostled with police and security personnel trying to get through, and some security personnel say others suffered some light scratches, however the police later physically dragged the activists out, dragging them along the floor and roughly pulling them outside leaving some activists with cuts and bruises. The activists were chanting against such fuel station applications being heard by the board prior to the f fuel station policy review's completion. The activists used drums and held placards.

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After being dragged outside, the activists kept on protesting, and marched around the Planning Authority grounds before leaving.

The Planning Authority representatives had, prior to the police action, offered for the activists to go inside if they promised to remain quiet, and that they would be given the chance to air their objections. The activists, however, refused saying that this protest was the only real way for their voices to truly be heard. This was the second time activists disrupted a PA meeting over a fuel station application, objecting to them being heard until a new fuel station policy is in place.

After the activists left, the PA meeting resumed, and the board voted to reject the application.

The application was for a new fuel station on ODZ land in Zejtun. The case was deferred in a prior sitting in august, as the applicant requested more time to address plans and reasons given by the Planning Directorate for a refusal recommendation, and on the grounds that new studies of the site need to be evaluated.

This application sought permission for the construction of not just fuel pumps, but also a service station (Shop), a truck VRT garage, a truck wash area, an ATM, car wash facilities and parking.

The planning application saw 187 representations and objections.

The 187 representations which had been filed focused on a number of issues, including: too many petrol stations within the surroundings; loss of good quality agricultural land; the road fronting the site is not an arterial or distributor road as required; land speculation, etc.

The site in question is located outside the development zone, and could be accessed from Triq Hal Tarxien, Bulebel Industrial Estate, Zejtun. The site is an agricultural land parcel known as il-Hofra il-Hamra. According to the plans, the total site area stands at 3,000sqm, the amount allowed under current fuel station policy.

The Planning Directorate had given three reasons for refusal.

Firstly, it argued that the proposed development runs counter to the provisions of the South Malta Local Plan which seeks to protect Areas of Agricultural Importance from inappropriate development, and that the proposed development runs counter to South Malta Local Plan Policy.

Another reason the Planning Directorate's case officer had recommended that the application be refused was that: "in all cases, the entrance to the fuel station should be visible from the Distributor or Arterial Road. The site is not considered as having access from a distributor or arterial Road and as such, the proposed site is not being considered as suitable for the sitting of a new fuel station." This was one of the reasons the applicant originally requested that PA Board meeting in August be deferred, wanting more clarity on this issue.

The other reason the applicant wanted the case deferred in August. was that the applicant wants to wait for the recommendation from an authority regarding the land studies

The Environment and Resources Authority had said, according to the Case Officer's report that "although the proposal qualifies for further EIA studies, this requirement is secondary to ERA's overriding objection to the development which encroaches beyond the development zone boundary onto a rural area which de facto acts as a strategic open gap between Bulebel industrial estate and its surroundings. ERA considers that there is no valid justification for the further loss of undeveloped rural land and associated environmental impacts to accommodate even further development of petrol stations. There is also concern regarding the cumulative environmental impact cause by the numerous ad hoc proposals for petrol stations currently being proposed on ODZ land. An ad hoc EIA for this proposal per se would still leave this strategic-level environmental concern unresolved."

During today's meeting, it was said that the Agricultural Advisory Committee had said that on the basis of the quality of the land and the soils, "the presence and condition of the rubble walls, the size and accessibility, and the absence of other features and assets of rural importance, taken in conjunction with the fact that, due to a prolonged period of abandonment and neglect, the state of the land and of the soils has deteriorated significantly, and said that the land where the proposal is to be located is reported to be considered to be of low value."

ERA Chairman Viktor Asciak said that by accepting the application, then the PA would capriciously lose ODZ land. He said that if one stops using agricultural land, then the value of the soil deteriorates, adding that while the Agricultural Advisory Committee says the soil has deteriorated is correct, saying it has low agricultural value is wrong.

The Zejtun Council also objected to the planning application, and the Mayor, who was present and had a vote, argued that agricultural land would be lost through the application's approval, and that there are five fuel stations in the area already, adding that this development is unfounded. The Mayor said residents would not gain anything from this ODZ development, adding that it is in the only area of agricultural land between Zejtun and Tarxien.  She said that the locality is already densely developed.

The PA took a vote with only one board member voting for the application to be approved. As such, it was denied.

Moviment Graffiti reaction

Moviment Graffitti and Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent in a statement, said that their "activists are carrying out a direct action during yet another PA Board meeting discussing a massive fuel station, this time in Żejtun. This direct action is to highlight the fact that, a full nine months after the authorities' promise to review an obscene Fuel Service Station Policy, no changes to this policy have been made so far. The current policy allows the construction of massive so-called fuel stations on natural and agricultural land designated as Outside Development Zones (ODZ). We demand that the processing of all pending ODZ fuel stations applications is suspended until the reviewed policy enters into force."

They said that "the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) presented its review of the policy last April, recommending that the policy should not allow any new or relocated fuel stations on ODZ land. However, the Planning Authority (PA), instead of immediately taking steps to reform the policy, stalled the process. It was only last July, three months after the ERA review, that the PA opened a public consultation exercise on this matter. This means that, if the revised policy is going to be discussed by a Parliamentary Committee, as is usually the case, a revised policy cannot be approved before October due to summer holidays. In the meantime, new applications for the development of fuel stations continue being submitted, in addition to the many that are already being processed. For example, last May, the owners of an already-approved ODZ fuel station in Marsascala applied to extend their 1,500m² fuel station complex by another 1,000m², since under the current policy a fuel station can be as huge as 3,000m²."

"The size of pending and approved ODZ fuel stations is seven times that of the Floriana granaries. There are currently twelve pending applications for ODZ fuel stations having the total size of over 52,000m². Four ODZ fuel stations with a total size of 12,000m² have already been approved. Even in the case of the Żejtun fuel station being discussed by the Board today, the PA has once again shown that it goes to great lengths to accommodate developers. The proposed 3,000m² fuel station on agricultural land in Żejtun has been recommended for refusal by the PA case officer himself, since it is not even in line with the current Fuel Service Station Policy. However, instead of refusing the application outright during the PA Board meeting of Thursday 2nd August, the Board deferred the sitting to give the developer more time to justify his case," the activists said.

"The PA is showing time and again that it dances to the developers' tune." 

In a tweet, PN MEP Roberta Metsola said: "Muscat's heavy-handedness, sending in of the Police to stop protesters and silence dissent is sad to watch. Everyone has a right to demonstrate Mr Prime Minister whether this is lighting a candle to demand justice or protest the environmental degradation."

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