A Santa Luċija resident, who fought to preserve his terraced house neighbourhood from being defaced by a five-storey pencil building, is relieved that the courts have protected the locality after a three-year battle.
Last week, the Court of Appeal overturned a decision to allow a terraced house, in a row of 20 terraced houses in Triq il-Ġibjun, to be demolished and turned into four apartments and a penthouse.
The court, presided by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti, ruled that just because the local plan’s height limitation permitted buildings of the height applied for, it did not mean that the permit ought to be granted. Any new building had to respect the context of the buildings it was located in.
This was a great victory for Michael Pule who fought for the application to be refused.
“I fought it on these two principles: first, this would affect my home and secondly, I wanted to preserve Santa Luċija. I want to pass on the message that today it is my next door neighbour wanting to do this, but tomorrow it could be yours,” he said.
Pule, 62, has been living in his terraced home in Triq Il-Ġibjun since 1986 with his wife and two sons. They were given the land in the 1980s as part of the government’s home ownership scheme in which people were given land to build their homes.
Within two years, over 100 houses were built in the area – all two-storey terraced houses. His house formed part of a row of 20 houses located in front of a field which forms part of an outside development zone.
The battle begins
In March 2020 came the news that rattled the neigbourhood. It was around the same time that the pandemic hit Malta and when the island was still shocked by the Ħamrun house collapse that killed Miriam Pace.
“We had just heard about the case of Miriam Pace when we found out that our next-door neighbour had applied to demolish the house. We were scared and were already discussing moving out during demolition. Apart from this, it all happened during the pandemic,” Pule said.
His neighbour applied to demolish the house and build four apartments and a penthouse as the height limitation in the area was set at 16.2 metres, according to the local plan.
The case officer had recommended the project for approval, saying it conformed to the height limitations of the area and relevant policies.
We had just heard about the case of Miriam Pace when we found out that our next-door neighbour had applied to demolish the house. We were scared
But the permit was refused after the planning board noted there were overriding reasons – the site was located in a comprehensive development within the house ownership scheme characterised by two-storey terraced houses in an area of low density facing an ODZ.
The applicant took the case to the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal that, at the end of 2022, overturned the board’s decision on grounds that the local plans allowed for a height that went over two storeys.
Had the local plans intended for the height in the area to be limited to two storeys, it would not have allowed higher buildings. The applicant should not be denied the right to build according to the local plans, the tribunal ruled.
The tribunal added that the streetscape was of no particular architectural value to deserve conservation given that all the houses had different facades.
The context matters
Pule and Liam Sciberras appealed the decision before the Court of Appeal presided by Chief Justice Mark Chetcuti.
After reviewing the case, the judge noted that, as the tribunal itself had noted, the street was occupied by two-storey terraced houses.
According to planning policy, “dominant design considerations of adjacent buildings should be identified and integrated into the new development”.
It was clear that the entire road, opposite ODZ land, was made of two-storey terraced houses and the proposed development would be of a dominant height.
Chetcuti stressed that the “dominant design considerations” that ought to be safeguarded had nothing to do with architectural value.
“If anything, the development, in conformity with the rest of the streetscape made of two-storey buildings with a front garden, ought to have been designed with architectural value that reflects two-storey buildings with a front garden,” the judge ruled.
He said that the height limitation set in the local plan limited the maximum height but did not go into whether the development was appropriate in the context.