Bidnija residents have described the Mepa appeals board’s decision to overturn the refusal of a permit for a controversial winery in an ODZ area as “absolutely obscene” and “a blow to common sense.”

The winery application by Stephen Galea, the man at the centre of the controversy surrounding the withdrawal of an ODZ development permit in Siġġiewi, had originally been refused by the Mepa board. The decision was overturned yesterday by the review tribunal.

The winery is linked to the controversial allocation of €150,000 in EU agricultural funds four days before the 2013 general election, The Sunday Times of Malta revealed last July. The reports by this newspaper had led to him having to return the funds.

Residents applauded the ap-peals board sarcastically after the decision was announced yesterday. Mr Galea wiped his brow in mock relief as he left the room.

Somebody can explain this to the hundreds who come every weekend fora quiet stroll in the countryside

The board based its decision on the existence of an outline permit for the development. It said that once the outline permit was valid, the planning authority should not have considered the principle of development again when deciding on the full permit, but simply considered the reserved matters.

Following the decision, Stefano Mallia, a Bidnija resident, said: “They decided to grant him the permit against all policies old and new concerning the development of wineries. They have basically told us that we residents have no rights and that policies are there for nothing.”

Mr Mallia said it was “incredible” that the three-person tribunal could twice overturn a decision by the Mepa board to refuse the permit. “Bidnija, which has one grocer shop and one small restaurant, will now have the ‘joy’ of a factory producing wine right in the middle of an ODZ,” he added. “Now somebody can come and explain this to the hundreds of people who come to Bidnija every weekend for a quiet stroll in the countryside.”

Businessman Maurice Mizzi described the decision as “the beginning of the destruction” of one of the last truly rural villages on the island. “This will bring traffic, noise and disruption to what has until now been a quiet farming area,” he said.

Mr Galea, the winery developer, is also at the centre of controversy regarding a permit for an ODZ development in Siġġiewi for the daughter of Albert (Bertu) Pace, who is a consultant to Agriculture Parliamentary Secretary Roderick Galdes. The permit was granted on the basis of a forged letter in his name as representing the Agriculture Department, The Sunday Times of Malta revealed last week.

Doubts on the validity of the document were flagged by this newspaper last December. It revealed that Mr Galea was listed as “a labourer”, a position he still held when the permit was issued. There is no official record confirming he had ever been employed as a vet support officer.

Mr Galea has been trying to get a permit for his Bidnija winery since 2002, but he has met strong opposition.

The most recent appeal hearings were postponed, because the tribunal allowed Mr Galea to consider whether he wanted to proceed or have the case considered under the new ODZ policy introduced by this administration, which makes provisions for wineries in the countryside.

Yet the new rules require that any proposed wineries should be located on established vineyard holdings, while Mr Galea’s fields are not vineyards at present.

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