Last updated Thursday 4pm
Activists stormed a meeting to discuss a filling station near Luqa on Thursday, before board members indicated they were split on their voting intentions.
Five members said they would vote against the highly-controversial project outside development zone, while five said they would vote in favour.
Those who said they would vote against were Planning Authority chairman Vince Cassar, Environment Resources Authority chairman Victor Asciak, NGO representative Annick Bonello, Opposition representative Marthese Portelli and board member Timothy Gambin.
Government representative Clayton Bartolo indicated his support for the project.
A decision was taken to postpone the final decision. Had the vote been taken the permit would have been refused since the chairman has a casting vote in the case of a tie.
But the law states that a vote has to be postponed when the majority plan to overturn the case officer's recommendation, which in this case was for approval.
Activists take on PA board members
The meeting got off to a stormy start after activists protested loudly in the PA board room as they called on the authority to stop decisions on fuel stations until a promised policy review takes place.
The meeting was suspended but activists were then barred from re-entering, sparking a tense encounter.
Some activists were seen trying to mount a gate and a scuffle with officials ensued after they were denied entry into the PA grounds.
Later, the PA chairman offered to allow the activists in if they maintain order.
But the activists hit back and said their point was that the meeting could not go ahead while the policy review was ongoing and that they should not have been forcibly removed from a public meeting.
The chairman decided the meeting will go ahead but without public presence, apart from journalists.
As the meeting dragged out into the afternoon, the board members who said they would vote against the Luqa project cited the take-up of agricultural land and the policy provision protecting rural environment as reasons.
Mr Cassar cited the activists' claims that board members were there only to support developers among his reasons for voting against the project.
Prof. Asciak criticised the developers' "pathetic justification" of the chosen location. He argued that the agricultural land lost would be around 5,000 square metres and not the 3,000 square metres indicated by the developers. This was because part of the site which would not be developed would still not be able to be used for agricultural purposes.
He also said the developers were taking advantage of the fuel stations' policy provision on "relocation" noting that the Savoy fuel station which would be decommissioned was only 100 square metres, 30 times smaller than the proposed development.
Developers argued that the proposed planning gain of €75,000 should be scrapped as they had already ‘paid’ a planning gain by decommissioning the Savoy station.
In a brief comment before the discussion, PA CEO Johann Buttigieg said the authority had a duty to continue listening to pending cases, even if a policy change was in the offing.
But in a statement, Kamp Emerġenza Ambjent together with Moviment Graffitti said they were demanding that no applications for fuel stations on ODZ are processed until the policy review promised by the Environment Minister is carried out.
"There are currently 14 applications for massive so-called petrol stations on ODZ land, four of which have already been approved. In total, these would take up an area more than five times the Floriana granaries. We believe that destroying all this natural and agricultural land for mega complexes that include petrol stations, in a country that is by far the most built up country in the EU, is pure madness and should be halted immediately," the NGOs said.
They said that the justification by the PA that the 2015 Fuel Service Station Policy, allowing petrol stations on ODZ land, is aimed at removing petrol stations from urban centres is just "a lame excuse" to justify the onslaught on Malta's environment and quality of life that is making a few fat cats richer.
They also said that calling these structures "fuel stations" is a misnomer since for their largest part they are shops, not fuel stations.
In a Facebook post, Nationalist Party spokesman Jason Azzopardi said he had written to the secretary of the Parliamentary Environment Committee for the fuel station policy to be tabled on the agenda in the next sitting.
"It's now evident that the 'revision' was another red herring by the government to buy time until all applications are approved. It's useless closing the stable doors after the horses have bolted," he said.
AD, PD praise activists' actions
AD chairperson Carmel Cacopardo praised the activists' actions, saying Graffiti Movement and Kamp Emergenza Ambjent were totally right in protesting.
"Permits for petrol stations are being approved left, right and centre. We do not need new petrol stations. What we need is for existing ones to close down. Some months ago the Prime Minister had stated that the Government agrees that petrol and diesel cars should be phased out and that in future all cars should be electric. AD agrees with this proposal," he said.
"The policy which permits new petrol stations left, right and centre are an excuse for land speculation. The Planning Authority together with the Government and the Opposition are accomplices of land speculators. The Planning Authority is not serious. It is a threat to future generations. We have a Planning Authority which doesn't give two hoots about the environment and our quality of life," the AD chairman said.
ODZ fuel station in Luqa was set for approval
The ODZ fuel station in Luqa was set for approval by the Planning Authority, despite an imminent revision of the policy governing such developments.
A 3,000 square metre area of agricultural land on Qormi Road, adjacent to the Water Services Corporation head office, has been earmarked for the relocation of a station from Rue D’Argens, Sliema.
The new fuel station will also include a shop, tyre service garage, VRT garage, ATM and carwash.
The Planning Directorate, in line with the Fuel Stations Policy, which allows such facilities to be relocated from urban sites to ODZ areas, recommended the application, by Raymond Brincat, for approval.
However, the policy is currently the subject of a revision ordered by Environment Minister José Herrera in January to address the “burden such developments are posing on agricultural or ecologically important land”.
No valid justification for the further loss of rural land
Although the policy is meant to protect agricultural land and prioritise industrial zones and committed sites such as open storage areas, it has led to the approval of several applications on virgin land.
The ERA, entrusted with the review, has objected to the Luqa development, citing the “further unacceptable proliferation and intensification of additional large-scale physical developments in this remaining rural area”.
It argued that if the application were to be approved, it would set a precedent for other developments along this arterial road.
The ERA said that there was no valid justification for the further loss of rural land and associated environmental impacts when the development could be accommodated in areas already designated for such use.
Nature Trust, Birdlife, Din L-Art Ħelwa and Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar have also objected due to the excessive take-up of agricultural land. The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SCH) has said the permit should be refused unless an archaeological evaluation is first carried out.
However, the directorate concluded the application was in line with the Fuel Stations Policy in terms of the location, siting, design and access arrangements.
The case officer said the environmental impacts highlighted by ERA could be mitigated through a construction management plan, and recommended approval against a planning gain of €75,000.
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