The Malta Independent 22 July 2019, Monday

Darkness over Dwejra

Tara Cassar Tuesday, 9 July 2019, 08:45 Last update: about 13 days ago

Last week NGOs expressed outrage at a decision of the Environment and Planning Tribunal [EPRT] to overturn the Planning Commission’s refusal of a permit seeking the extension of a tables and chairs area, addition of a canopy and increased lighting (and therefore increased light pollution) at a restaurant in Dwejra, an area protected as part of Gozo’s dark sky heritage.

The restaurant in Dwejra has been at the centre of much contention ever since 1998, when the owner at the time first applied to construct a catering establishment on what was up until that point still virgin land. The Planning Authority had refused the application, and the applicant subsequently appealed the decision. During the appeal proceedings, the PA had argued against the proposed restaurant, stating that “much of [Dwejra’s] coastline is characterised by its remoteness.

ADVERTISEMENT

The importance of preserving this remote character by restricting new development is therefore vital… constraints are to be placed on the proliferation of new activities”. The tribunal agreed with the PA and chose to prioritize protecting the site from any further development, noting that any form of commercial activity in the area would not only directly threaten the state of its environment, but have long-term repercussions by setting a dangerous precedent that would encourage others to apply for similar developments. The tribunal therefore refused the appeal, leaving the applicant without a restaurant.

Eight years later, the applicant tried his luck again using a different approach. By then, the Dwejra Heritage Park Action Plan (2005) was complete. The Action plan listed activates that may be permitted in the area, amongst them, an Interpretation Centre, a first aid clinic, public toilets and, yes, a catering establishment.

The Interpretation Centre became the Trojan horse that would allow the applicant to construct a new restaurant exactly where it had been refused 8 years prior. The Dwejra Action Plan that was meant to serve as a holistic plan to ensure the safeguarding of this precious site was now the key to its exploitation.

One of the requirements for the Interpretation Centre was that it be accessible from the ground floor allowing easy access for visitors. To ensure compliancy with this without losing the most prominent frontage on the main square, the restaurateur excavated part of the site, placed the Interpretation Centre at basement level, which could now be accessed at ground floor via the side street just off the main square, allowing for the ground floor entrance on the square to be reserved for the restaurant.

ENGOs already saw the likely abuse and objected to the development. Unfortunately the Planning Authority shrugged off the warnings, considering the application to be in line with the heritage plan, and approved the restaurant.

Three years later, not content with having gotten a restaurant approved where most would have thought it impossible, the restaurant owner applied for an extension of the catering area through the reduction of the Interpretation Centre by shifting the kitchen to the basement level. The case officer had rather casually noted that: “This amended layout provides the opportunity to open up the upper level into an open-air alfresco dining area with only a servicing area and sanitary facilities being enclosed spaces”.

The amended proposal also saw the removal of the photovoltaic panels that were mandatory for the Interpretation Centre under the Dwejra Action Plan. The first aid room and the administration office also disappeared.  The Interpretation Centre had been reduced to a fraction of what the Action Plan envisaged it to be yet still the PA approved the amended development.

Today, the Interpretation Centre is hardly noticeable to anyone even familiar with the area, let alone the hordes of tourists meant to be visiting it. On the other hand, the al fresco restaurant is seen by all who visit Dwejra with its prominent placing on the main square. The tables and chairs placed outside of the restaurant on the terrace, as well as those sprawling onto the public pavement, are all illegal. The signage clearly demarking the property as a restaurant is also illegal. Interestingly (and perhaps unsurprisingly) the application that was just approved by the EPRT does not even cover the full extent of these illegalities. The applicant should have been slapped with an enforcement order but was instead allowed to carry on exploiting the system.

The fight to protect Dwejra does not end here. Thanks to the people that generously donated over 3,000 euro to the cause, NGOs are appealing this decision to court, with the aim of stopping the flagrant abuse at this site that can no longer be allowed to threaten the state of Dwejra’s invaluable natural heritage so linked to its pristine dark skies and undermine the very plan that was meant to ensure the site’s protection.

  • don't miss