The Malta Environment and Planning Authority yesterday drove what is likely to be the last nail in the coffin of the controversial development neighbouring the Lija Belvedere as the developer signalled he would fight back and is demanding compensation.

A conservation order was issued by the authority's board yesterday on two projects for four-storey apartment blocks along Transfiguration Avenue leading from the Belvedere to the town centre, effectively barring the owners from developing the sites beyond two floors, in spite of what their permits say.

The two developments were approved by Mepa last year on the basis of an anomaly in the local plans which switched the status of the avenue from a two-floor area to four floors. Lija residents and the local council protested forcefully, particularly against the project closest to the Belvedere, insisting that it would overshadow the historic landmark and will open the door for the whole avenue to be developed into towering blocks that would ruin the town core.

The authority forged ahead at the time but eventually had a change of heart this year after a new Mepa chairman, Austin Walker, was appointed and started working on blocking the developments.

To this end, the entire length of the main avenue and the town centre were listed in July. Nonetheless, the permits issued technically remained valid, which is why the board yesterday issued the conservation order that "prohibits any building works to be carried out beyond two floors from street level".

The option to go for a conservation order means the authority does not have to compensate the developers. Had Mepa simply revoked the permits, it would have to compensate the developers.

However, the developers are making it clear they do not accept Mepa's decision, insisting that conservation orders can only be issued for property which in itself has some sort of value (such as heritage or architectural) and not to protect the surroundings of a historical building as was done by Mepa in this case.

The architect representing the developers for the project closest to the Belvedere, Robert Musumeci, would only say that his clients would be fighting this point in court but left a request for his detailed reaction unanswered.

The Mepa chairman could not be contacted.

Asked to comment on Mepa's decision to list the avenue in July, Mr Musumeci had insisted that his clients would be seeking compensation and that it would be "big money".

In the meantime, the town's mayor, Ian Castaldi Paris, welcomed yesterday's news as the last chapter in a long battle to reverse what residents and council alike always felt was a bad decision on Mepa's part.

"We appreciate the authority's gesture and now have faith that Mepa means business," he said. He announced that, as from next week, the council will be launching a consultation process with the whole town on the revision of the local plans that have technically expired last month.

The case of Lija's avenue, in fact, was one of the more publicised issues concerning the consultation process carried out in connection with the drafting of the original local plans.

The council has been insisting all along that it had not been properly consulted on the changing of Transfiguration Avenue's development status.

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