Updated at 5.30pm with PA statement

A five-floor guesthouse in Wied Għomor was given the go-ahead on Wednesday in a controversial turnaround by the Planning Authority.

Three weeks ago, the Planning Commission stated its intention to reject the application as it went far beyond a previously-approved permit for a villa and pool and introduced a whole new block in a sensitive area.

In line with procedure, the case was deferred for conditions to be drawn up before a formal decision, but in a hearing on Wednesday, the three-person board changed its tune and voted two to one in favour, citing modified plans submitted a day before the hearing.

Representatives of the Swieqi local council, which was among the objectors to the proposal, lamented that they had not been made aware of the fresh plans, and were not given an opportunity to voice their objections, in a meeting that lasted only a few minutes.

Only one board member was present for both hearings, and retained his stance against the development. The two other members, including chairwoman Elizabeth Ellul, voted in favour.

The three-person board changed its tune and voted two to one in favour, citing modified plans submitted a day before the hearing

The site of the approved guesthouse lies outside development zones on the valley side of the protected Wied Għomor in St Julian’s, and currently consists of a dilapidated building, abutting a garage and two-storey building.

A villa permit was approved in 2015 but has not yet been built, and the developer subsequently sought permission to build a larger guesthouse instead.

Objectors – including environmental groups and the local councils of Swieqi and St Julian’s, which have consistently opposed development in Wied Għomor – had argued that the application went against conditions in the original permit and that the effect of five floors (three above street level) on the valley had not been properly considered.

The Swieqi council argued that the proposal was “totally alien in terms of bulk, form, textures and scale to the rural quality of the context” and said the “grabbing of more protected ODZ land by developers should not be tolerated”.

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) had warned that the additional height and massing was likely to visually intrude onto Wied Għomor, and that approval would set a precedent for similar development on existing vacant plots within this area.

This is the latest of several applications in Wied Għomor, a scheduled area of ecological and scientific importance, to be decided in recent weeks.

The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal rejected a proposal for a 133-room retirement home in the valley on March 2, while the PA approved a small-scale residential development in another part of the valley one week later.

PA defends decision

The Planning Authority issued a statement later defending the decision. It said that the approved guesthouse would be built on a parcel of land which "is not only disturbed but also enclosed between two existing developments".

The site fronts a number of apartment blocks at the lower end of the valley area and would not take up any virgin land, it noted, adding that the new guesthouse would retain a similar building height and depth as the residential villa which was approved two years ago.

"Although last month the Commission expressed its reservations with the application, today the Commission cited that it was satisfied with the revised plans submitted by the applicant which addressed a number of issues including a reduction in the glazed area," it said.

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