A contested proposal to build a pontoon at Balluta Bay was approved by the Planning Authority on Monday, one month after the authority indicated that it would be rejecting it.

The commission voted unanimously in favour of the application filed by Fortina Group for a pontoon to land ferry passengers close to the St Julian’s water polo club.  

The approval means St Julian’s water polo club will be allowed to build a temporary pontoon at the bay to be used for a hop-on, hop-off ferry service by the Fortina Group, which owns Captain Morgan ferries. 

The club says that the pontoon will be removed once it expands its premises to incorporate a ferry landing spot within it. 

Residents, the St Julian’s Bay local council and eNGOs had vociferously objected to the plans, saying they will force bathers out of the popular bay and turn the bay into “another Sliema Ferries”. 

During the meeting, lawyer Claire Bonello, on behalf of the objectors, pointed out that the decision could not be taken due to a procedural error since the applicant’s submissions were only received by objectors a week ago when they should be submitted 15 days before. 

She insisted that according to the local plan, the only designated ferry landing points are Manoel island, Pieta and the Sliema ferries. 

St Julian’s mayor Albert Buttigieg also expressed his objection to the proposal, on behalf of the entire council which also voted against it. He said the council already received two applications for booth and this will further commercialise the area. 

"Yes, it's true, we can refuse the permit for these booths but we will probably be overruled," he said. 

A visual indicator showing where applicants will be building the jetty.A visual indicator showing where applicants will be building the jetty.

Graffitti spokesman Andre Callus said the project was illogical “because you cannot have a catamaran going in and out where children are swimming.” He said the fact that there are other boats in the area does not make this project right. 

Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Aħjar spokesperson Astrid Vella said there was no obligation on the provider to use the ecological boats being proposed and that the jetty can be used by anyone else with a boat since it is not exclusive. 

She said there was a jetty across the bay in Spinola, which was a non-bathing zone, which can be used instead.

The Fortina Group had pushed back against what it claimed was a “smear campaign” and insisted that the pontoon would have “no impact” on bathers in the area.

The developer’s lawyer, Ian Stafrace, insisted that the ferries which will be using are state-of-the-art environmentally friendly vessels with their own sewage treatment system on board. He said the service is a hop-on-hop-off service and tourists can use the same ticket of a hop-on-hop-off bus. Berthing, drop-off and pick-up is estimated to take between six and seven minutes. 

Despite the objections, commission chairman Simon Saliba and members Anthony Camilleri and Claude Mallia voted in favour of the application. During their deliberations, they commented on how the project will reduce the congestion of busloads of tourists at the Sliema ferry when the ferries are leaving and arriving in Sliema. 

Mr Saliba added that the development permit was being granted subject to an operational permit issued by the Environment and Resources Authority. 

During a hearing in early February, the PA had said that it would be rejecting the proposal despite the case officer recommending it for approval. A second hearing to confirm that decision was initially scheduled for the second week of February but was put off by three weeks. 

Waterpolo club ‘stands to gain’ 

St Julian’s Aquatic Club president Peter Bonavia admitted that his waterpolo club stands to gain from the ferry but refused to confirm the €100,000 a year price tag being claimed by the objectors. 

“Of course, we stand to gain from it. That is why were backed the project because this is something temporary of one to two years. Then hopefully we’ll get our permit to build a proper waterpolo facility. So yes, I’d be lying if I tell you no. But every cent we’re getting we’re investing back into the club for the benefit of the kids who come there to train,” he said. 

During the hearing, Mr Bonavia insisted that the berth was outside the swimming zone and that very few people swim in that area. He said boats already occupied the area and there’s already a lot of pollution there. He insisted that the project will improve the area. 

'Applicant sufficiently justified project' 

In a later statement, the Planning Authority said the applicant had provided sufficient justification for the project to be given the green light.

After the planning commission initially expressed its concerns based on the objections raised, the applicant rebutted the proposed reasons for refusal by providing further explanation behind the scope of the project, the PA said. 

The PA said the applicant clearly showed the project is not a stand alone business opportunity but part of a holistic plan which links land and sea transport.

It said the St Julian’s ‘hop-on hop-off’ ferry landing place will be part of a maritime transport route system which covers several popular areas along the eastern coast of Malta. 

This would link up with the "popular" 'hop-on hop-off' bus route service, and would provide an alternative transport solution which will reduce the traffic congestion problem, especially at the Sliema ferries, the PA said. 

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