Farmers will be able to provide agritourism facilities on their land under a new planning policy which, however, sets strict limits on new construction in outside development zones.
The policy, approved by Cabinet, allows a maximum of 10 bedrooms to be offered by farmers who own at least 60 tumoli of continuous agricultural land or who pool their land.
Other facilities that will be permitted include boutique wineries, olive oil production and beekeeping structures as well as small retail outlets from where farmers could sell their produce.
The policy targets ODZ areas and brings under one umbrella three previous policies that dealt with the contentious issue of construction in green areas.
Environment groups had come out strongly against the agritourism proposals when the policy was rolled out for public consultation last year, fearing a building boom in previously unspoilt areas.
But Planning Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon yesterday played down the concerns, insisting the conditions attached to agritourism would not lead to the proliferation of new buildings in ODZ areas.
“Owning 60 tumoli of land is the first requisite and there aren’t many farmers who have such a vast expanse but even what can be built is heavily regulated and will be contractually bound,” he insisted.
Information tabled in Parliament last year shows there are 111 farmers who own land parcels greater than 60 tumoli.
Other farmers and landowners could be eligible to construct agritourism facilities if they pooled different plots of land in a joint bid.
The largest concentration of farmers in a single locality with 60 tumoli of land is found in Mġarr.
But a third of all farmers who satisfy the condition for eligibility are in Gozo.
Farmers venturing into agritourism will have to enter into a public contract tying the accommodation intrinsically to the use of the land as a farm.
The law will not make it possible to sell the accommodation facilities separately from the farmable land but non-farmers can reap profits from these developments as long as the land is being farmed.
Dr Falzon acknowledged the policy was likely to prompt debate but insisted it was not aimed at allowing the construction of new dwellings in ODZ areas.
“The policy’s main aim is to protect the environment while allowing the creation of niche agriculture sectors,” he said. “It won’t be possible for a beekeeper to close shop and sell the house as a summer residence because any future sale of the property will have to keep the dwelling as part of a beekeeping operation.”
The policy also allows for the redevelopment of derelict buildings in ODZ areas in a move that recalls the Victor Scerri Baħrija farmhouse case five years ago.
Dr Scerri, a former Nationalist Party president, had obtained a controversial permit to redevelop a derelict farmhouse in a protected area in Baħrija. The permit was opposed by green groups and the Labour Party at the time.
His architect, Robert Musumeci, had argued it made no sense to leave a previously inhabited farmhouse lying in ruins and spoiling the countryside when it could be rebuilt.
Part of the permit was subsequently revoked after an investigation by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority auditor found shortcomings.
But Dr Falzon yesterday insisted the policy was aimed at preventing similar cases from occurring.
“The Baħrija case involved a site in a protected area and the redevelopment had increased the footprint of the original building, two things the new policy will not allow,” he said.
The 42-page policy also deals with the construction of stables and dwellings on livestock farms.
Environmentalists were not impressed though and in a first reaction, marine biologist Alan Deidun questioned Mepa’s ability to police the conditions of the policy when it was already short on resources.
Posting a comment beneath the report on timesofmalta.com, Dr Deidun said the policy was paving the way for more abuse.
“This is just an extension of the development boundaries, as happened in 2006, approved under the radar, so as not to raise the hackles of environmentalists,” he said, questioning the wisdom of having agritourism projects in Malta when neighbouring Sicily had a more attractive offering.