Updated with campaigners' statement

After three months of hearings, the planning appeals tribunal on Thursday gave the go ahead for the db Group’s controversial St George’s Bay mega-development, but Transport Malta has to confirm within 30 days that the existing road network can cater for the additional traffic.

The developers had been relying on the construction of a tunnel, details of which remained unclear, to cope with the traffic the project would generate. 

"Transport Malta officials testified during the appeals process that the existing road network could not cope, and therefore it remains to be seen how the developers intend to resolve this," lawyer Claire Bonello, representing the objectors, said after the hearing. 

The developer was also instructed to create an additional 270 square metres of public open space, which cannot be roofed over as previously planned.

The tribunal ordered the height of the tower to be reduced by 10 metres, and that of the hotel by eight metres. The entire facade of the scheduled Institute of Tourism Studies (ITS) building must be retained in the new design. 

However, the tribunal denied outright claims by objectors that the decision had been vitiated by conflicts of interest concerning two board members. Objectors said they would be asking the courts for a judicial review in the coming days. 

The €300 million City Centre project, which includes a 37-storey tower and 17-storey hotel, was approved by the Planning Authority in September despite an unprecedented 4,500 objections from the public, local councils and NGOs.

An appeal against the decision was filed in November by 17 entities, including Pembroke, Swieqi and St Julian’s local councils and several environmental groups, following a crowdfunding drive which raised more than €24,000 to cover the costs of the appeal.

The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal (EPRT) announced its decision on Thursday, with the developers told to submit new plans including an increase in open space and a small height reduction on tower and hotel buildings.

The appeal was filed by three councils and several NGOs.The appeal was filed by three councils and several NGOs.

Protests over conflicts of interest

In their appeal, objectors alleged that two PA board members – Matthew Pace and Labour MP Clayton Bartolo – had undeclared conflicts of interest and should have recused themselves from the vote.

Mr Pace is a co-owner in the Swieqi branch of property agents Remax, one of several agencies which marketed the project, while Mr Bartolo’s father and uncle are shareholders in a company operating out of the Tunnynet complex, owned by db Group chief Silvio Debono.

The tribunal found that there was no conflict of interest but the objectors are not happy with this and have said that they would refer the issue for judicial review.

The appeal also referred to the controversial decision to fly board member Jacqueline Gili on a private jet to participate in the vote, at a cost of €8,750. Ms Gili voted in favour of the development.

The Ombudsman’s office concluded after an investigation that the move could have constituted “unwarranted influence” and that board members should not accept any insistence to attend or not attend a particular hearing.

Appellants reiterated concerns over a proposed tunnel accepted as a solution to traffic issues raised by the development, despite there being as yet no concrete plans for the tunnel’s construction.

They also highlighted potential breaches of the Floor Area Ratio Policy which governs high-rise development.

Apart from the three local councils, the appellants includes Friends of the Earth, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, BirdLife, Moviment Graffitti, the Ramblers Association, Nature Trust and Żminijietna – Voice of the Left.

Campaigners to file legal suit against project

Campaigners who actively oppose the project said the outcome contained a “significant win” and said that they would now take their fight to the law courts.
“While we express our disappointment with the Tribunal’s decision to uphold the permit given by PA, we positively note that this permit will, for now, remain suspended, meaning that works cannot start,” they said.

“We remain against this project in its entirety, and Local Councils, NGOs and residents will undertake further legal action aimed at annulling the PA’s decision to grant this permit. In the coming days, several residents, NGOs and three Local Councils will start an alternative action in court.”

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