The developer who carried out works on a protected Balluta building without a permit will have to pay a daily fine of €50 until the site is reinstated, a sum that casts doubt on the punishment’s deterrent effect.

When and whether the penalty will be paid is another question mark, according to a legal expert, who said the process was “rife with abuse and inbuilt loopholes to reward lawbreakers”.

Last week, the Planning Authority said the contravenor, Carlo Stivala, would be punished for removing wooden Maltese balconies from the former Barracuda and Piccolo Padre restaurants.

The contravenor had no permit to his application (PA3863/21) and the application had also been suspended.

The PA issued a stop and enforcement notice and said it would be enforcing a daily penalty on the applicant.

Asked for the amount, the PA said it “reaches €50 per day”. This would stop when the site is reinstated.

The abusive works were flagged by St Julian’s Mayor Albert Buttigieg on New Year’s Day. They continued into the next day, a Sunday, until they were stopped on Monday afternoon.

Buttigieg maintained three days were allowed to pass before action was taken and the delaying tactics allowed the developer to complete irreversible damage on the façade and interiors of the landmark seafront property.

The PA has denied accusations of collusion with the applicant.

Stivala is a development tycoon with multiple property interests across Malta. He received properties valued at more than €81 million when he split from his family business in 2020.

Hazy laws mean illegalities may cost applicant nothing

Claire Bonello, a lawyer with a special interest in planning law, explained that the PA allows for the postponement of the decision on the fine until the application is decided and all appeals are exhausted.

“Even then, it retains the power to forgive the penalty,” she said.

She described the developer’s option to petition the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal on the fine as “equally lenient and obscure”.

Penalties do not start to be incurred until 16 days from notification of a notice from the PA, she explained. If the infringement is ‘sanctioned’ by means of the application (which in this case is already filed but suspended), the penalty can be appealed or petitioned.

This procedure was “obscure”, with the contravenor simply sending a petition, which does not require payment, to the tribunal.

Grounds for granting the petition were very “nebulous”, third parties were not privy to the procedure and fines were often forgiven.

Requesting the PA to agree to a compromise fee was also possible, she added, underlining that “again, this is secretive, and fines are slashed – nobody knows why and on which criteria”. 

While the legislation provides for free petitions and requests to the PA for wrongdoers, normal citizens who want to file an appeal have to pay hundreds and thousands of euros in fees, Bonello said.

“But that is Maltese planning legislation for you – always on the side of the contravenor.”

Watchdog to inspect site

Works on the Grade 2 listed building involved the removal of mid-19th century louvred Maltese balconies which are considered extremely rare and of traditional patterned tiles. They were thrown in a dumpster.

The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage will be inspecting the site to assess the works carried out and determine any remedial action required.

“This process will include an assessment of the cultural heritage value of the balconies, apertures and any other fixtures that have been removed without permit,” the cultural heritage watchdog said.

It is gathering the required information to form its assessment.

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