Mark Gaffarena has applied to build an agritourism complex on a field in Tal-Ħandaq acquired in the Old Mint Street scandal, and which has been illegally developed over several years.

The site was part of the €1.65 million in cash and land the government paid Mr Gaffarena in exchange for a half-share of a property in Old Mint Street, Valletta, in 2015. The transfer led to the resignation of then parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon and is now the subject of a court case filed by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat seeking its revocation.

Mr Gaffarena nevertheless applied in March 2017 to sanction a “bird park including small single storey structures” on the Tal-Ħandaq site, and the application has since grown to a proposal for an extensive agritourism project including accommodation, stables, an equestrian track and a bird sanctuary.

The 6,000 square metre site in the limits of Qormi is not covered by any planning permission but is already occupied by a large swimming pool and restaurant, which was used as an entertainment venue for years despite a pending enforcement notice dating back to 2012. The existing structures are proposed for sanctioning under the new application, which will be formally published by the Planning Authority next week.

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) registered its opposition to the application back when it sought only to sanction a bird park, citing environmental damage done by the prior “piecemeal” development.

The ERA said the developments had been “excessive” and resulted in the “degradation” of the environmental quality of the site and its surroundings.

“This situation is of significant concern to the ERA, and should not be rewarded through retroactive sanctioning,” the authority said.

“In addition, approval of this proposal would consolidate further development intensification and sprawl ODZ. This is of concern from an environmental point of view as is the malpractice of first developing a site irrespective of its ODZ status and then requesting the sanctioning of a fait-accompli.”

NGO Din L-Art Ħelwa also objected to the sanctioning, warning that such developments “often become parks, restaurants and continue to create urban sprawl in ODZ areas”.

Last year, a few weeks before the application was submitted, the courts dismissed a libel suit filed by Mr Gaffarena against Daphne Caruana Galizia over claims related to the restaurant on site.

The journalist had claimed that Antoine Azzopardi was running the illegal restaurant, known as Ċavett’s Palace, on Mr Gaffarena’s premises.

The court concluded that the facts were “substantially correct” and amounted to fair comment.

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