The Chamber of Architects has launched an investigation into those involved in a sprawling multi-storey block of flats in Qala being developed by property supremo Joseph Portelli.

The investigation by the council of the Kamra Tal-Periti – Chamber of Architects – is designed “to establish whether there is a prima-facie breach” of the Code of Professional Conduct by two architects.

The probe follows investigations by Times of Malta that revealed how the large project is being put together through six development applications submitted since mid-2018 – five have been approved, the sixth is being processed.

The entire project, with 179 flats and extensive facilities out-back, sprawls over an area larger than three football grounds. It is one of the largest residential developments Gozo has ever seen.

The total gross floor area of the flats, including the latest application for 64 flats still under processing, is greater than the 30,000 square metres threshold that triggers the Environment Impact Assessment screening procedure.

Tara Cassar, advisory architect for NGO Din L-Art Ħelwa, said that had the entire project had been presented in a single development application, the Environment and Resources Authority would have put it under EIA screening to establish whether the project would have qualified for a fully-fledged impact assessment.

The impact of the development is proportional to its location: the occupancy of flats at full capacity would swell the population of Qala by around a fifth over current levels.

It is understood that the chamber is set to investigate whether the architect who designed the blocks and put in the applications, misled the Planning Authority.

Architect Annamaria Attard Montalto rejected the notion of conniving with the developer to mislead the PA and circumvent planning laws. She said: “I will certainly not accept your accusation that, in some way or form, I connived with anyone to breach planning laws.”

The development will swell the population of Qala by a fifth

Ms Attard Montalto, who is reportedly employed full-time with J Portelli Projects, would not be drawn into the reason for passing on three parts of the project after she had already designed the buildings. She said she relinquished her involvement and responsibility in these applications “due to matters known to my clients and I.”

The second architect, Alexander Bigeni, has recently come into the picture by taking responsibility for three of the four development applications within the development, including the application currently being processed.

When contacted, Mr Bigeni pointed out that the applications were neither submitted nor designed by himself.

He said that the council “only investigates after establishing the relevant facts and only if a prima facie breach of ethics results”, adding that he “will be glad to help it establish the relevant facts”.

In wider comments, the council posited that this case “exposes the flaws in the development control processes currently in place which allow for ‘salami slicing’ of development applications. Moreover, the cumulative impacts of development should have already been assessed and subjected to Strategic Environmental Assessments before the local plans were brought into force. This was not done.”

Investigations are limited by code

Although the council of the Kamra tal-Periti is expected to look into the matter widely, it downplayed expectations by stating that “investigations are limited by the scope of the code itself ”.

The council was scathing of the Planning Authority’s failure of “its legal and moral obligation to plan development properly”.

“The main problem with our planning system is that it is focused almost exclusively on development control – the process of issuing permit,” the council said.

“The Planning Authority’s main focus should instead be on planning – the process of identifying long-term development needs at a strategic level, translating those needs into spatial plans having had due regard to the triple bottom line of social, environmental and economic sustainability and setting out an implementation strategy which would include the public and private sector, including through development control processes. Unfortunately, the PA only focuses on the latter part.”

The council said it has initiated talks with Environment and Planning Minister Aaron Farrugia to carry out “meaningful reform of the Planning Authority and the way planning is done in our country” in a way that ensures that “the public interest is safeguarded over narrow individual interests.”

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