The Malta Independent 3 August 2020, Monday

Major Mensija development gets the thumbs down from the Planning Authority

Albert Galea Monday, 16 December 2019, 14:10 Last update: about 9 months ago

A major development in Mensija which could have affected the integrity of an historic chapel and large cave in the area has been given the thumbs down by the Planning Authority.

The application, which is in Triq is-Santwarju in the hamlet of Mensija, is for the proposed demolition of existing dilapidated structures, proposed site excavation and construction of underlying parking levels, a Class 4A Office, Duplex residential units with gardens and pools and overlying residential apartments including a receded floor.

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The parking levels would span across three underground levels and accommodate 36 parking spaces.  The Class 4A office would have a total floor space of around 50 square metres at ground floor, while the development would see the construction of 35 residential apartments.

The area is described by the project’s case officer as being of high cultural and historical value, and being characterized by a cluster of buildings forming a hamlet which is visible on the 1908 Ordnance sheet. This hamlet is marked by the Mensija Chapel and the Lanzun Tower, which is one of the last examples of a fortified farmhouse in Malta, both scheduled as Grade 1 cultural heritage sites.

The proposal, which was heard in front of the Planning Commission board, attracted a raft of objections from several entities and members of the public with the hearing in fact being held in a boardroom packed with objectors.

The Environment & Resource Authority and the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage both expressed concerns on the project which was later cited by the PA’s case officer.  The Curia meanwhile also objected to the development, citing concerns over the effect that the development could have to the existence of the Mensija Chapel which is built over a large, fragile cave.

Amongst those in the hearing were also representatives from the San Gwann Local Council, who expressed their wish for the historical heritage of the site to be safeguarded, and Moviment Graffitti, who objected to the application.

Furthermore, the ERA issued a Conservation and Protection Order on the Mensija site, in which the proposed development falls in, on 19 November – something which the projects architect lamented as being “coincidental”.

The project’s architect in fact said that they had not been advised of this order and had immediately spoken to the ERA for a reconsideration of it, noting that they had passed a geotechnical investigation on to the ERA to ask for the removal of the protection order on their site, which she said falls into what is termed by the order as a buffer zone.

The order makes a distinction between the Core Zone, which is where Ghar Harruba is found, and a Buffer Zone.  That Buffer Zone however “is protected and the Authority [ERA] shall only grant a permit after having ascertained that such activities do not significantly affect the geological, geomorphological and physiographical integrity of the site”, the order reads.

The architect requested that the hearing of the case be suspended until they have gone through the appeal process on the protection order with the ERA.

An architect representing residents from the area however blasted the notion that the issuing of the order was coincidental, saying that everybody knew about the geological characteristics of the area and that they had a report in hand by a Maltese geological expert who had said that the major karstic doline in the area must be protected at all costs, and that any intense works could endanger the cave and the lives of those living above it.

In her recommendations before the protection order was issued, the case officer recommended that the permission for the application is refused.  In her reasons for this recommendation, the case officer says that the site of the proposed development is located in an Area of Ecological Importance, on a ridge overlooking Wied Ghomor.

“The proposed development, which is objected to by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, will create unsightly and massive blank party walls overlooking the valley and the Mensija Sanctuary, detracting from the historical value of the scheduled buildings and therefore runs counter to Thematic Objective 8 of the SPED [Strategic Plan for Environment and Development], which aims for the safeguarding and enhancement of the cultural heritage”, the case officer’s conclusions read.

The case officer also noted that the proposed development – especially the excavation works – are, as noted by the ERA, adjacent to a major karstic doline and may hence have significant effects on the “geological, geomorphological or physiographical integrity of the site”.  The case officer notes that no mitigation measures to avoid, prevent, reduce, or offset any likely significant adverse effects on the environment – especially the valley and cave in the area – were put in place, meaning that it also runs counter to the SPED.

The case officer also cited four other policy breaches as reasons for refusal of the application, namely centring on the depth of the building, and on breaches to health and sanitary regulations wherein not all dwelling where found to have frontage facing the road, valley, or coast.

The Planning Commission board did not consider the request to suspend the case, and voted unanimously against the granting of the permit.

 

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