Excavation works for a mega-project on the site of the former Mistra Village complex began earlier this week, despite the project still being subject to a pending court appeal.
Photos and videos sent to Times of Malta by residents showed excavators and bulldozers at the large rural site in northern Malta. Residents said machinery ripped through bushes and pulled down trees, as workers cleared the area.
Documents filed with the Planning Authority showed that the applicant filed an excavation method statement for the site on March 6. The construction regulator approved that plan a week later, on March 13.
The applicant, developer Charles Camilleri on behalf of his company Gemxija Crown Ltd, chose to press ahead with excavation works just five weeks before a court of appeal is scheduled to have a final say on the project.
That court decision is scheduled for May 10.
Attempts to contact the developer or his architect Edwin Mintoff were unsuccessful.
A project mired in controversy
The site is occupied by the derelict Corinthia Mistra Village Club Hotel, built in the 1980s and which closed down in 2004.
Camilleri wants to build a 12-storey, 744-residential unit complex on the ridge.
The controversial project has been in limbo since it was first approved in 2013. An outline permit for a larger development had previously been approved in 2008.
The Ombudsman concluded in a 2013 report that the Planning Authority had been wrong to issue the outline permit and that it had compounded the error by green-lighting the full development.
Although the developer had a permit in hand to build the development, the site remained untouched and construction never began.
In 2018, the developer applied to renew the project's permit for a further five years. The PA approved that application in February 2019, despite the objections of residents, eNGOs and then-environmental regulator Victor Axiak.
Residents then filed an appeal with the PA's appeals body, the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal.
The EPRT, however, dismissed objections and confirmed the project's permit renewal.
Residents then turned to the law courts for redress. A decision on their appeal is due on May 10.
Objectors to the project have raised several concerns over its impact, ranging from the deterioration of air quality, the increase of noise pollution, and the visual impact of such a large-scale high-rise development on a ridge.
They also argued that the project had to be revised before its permit could be renewed, to bring it in line with planning laws introduced in the period since the permit was first granted.
One such change was the introduction of a floor-area ratio policy for high-rise buildings in 2014, under which the project could have been deemed inadmissible due to the site’s sensitivity at the edge of a ridge and overlapping an area of ecological and archaeological importance.
However, the renewal application made no mention of this floor area ratio policy, instead focusing on a 2006 local plan provision which permits developments over eight storeys “provided the scheme has a noteworthy urban and architectural design of the highest calibre”.
A planning loophole
The applicant was able to begin excavation works this week despite the pending appeal because planning laws are designed that way.
According to the law, anyone appealing a permit decision can also file a request to suspend works at the site.
But applicants can only file one such request and if the EPRT refuses it there is nothing to stop developers from moving ahead with work, as happened in the Mistra case.
Furthermore, when the suspensions are granted, they only suspend work for a matter of months, rather than indefinitely.
When appeals shift to the law courts, applicants must convince the court that they will suffer "irredeemable damage" if works are allowed to go ahead - something that is difficult to prove.
The system was introduced in 2016 and critics say it favours large developers, who have the capacity to quickly carry out works before lengthy appeals are wrapped up.
There have been several other such cases involving works beginning before appeals processes were exhausted - from a case concerning a large-scale project in Naxxar to one concerning a swimming pool for minister Ian Borg.
Sometimes, it is government agencies that have exploited the system, as Infrastructure Malta did when it started Central Link Project works before a court of appeal had the final say.
Residents concerned about impact on local wildlife
Residents who contacted Times of Malta spoke of their concern over the impact that the works are having on local wildlife, with the local hedgehog community being particularly vulnerable.
Vincent Attard, president of Nature Trust, said that the NGO has stepped in to try to capture and relocate hedgehogs and chameleons that are at risk of death or injury.
Attard said Nature Trust has long been calling on ERA and the Planning Authority to oblige developers to inform them when works on such projects are set to begin, in order for environmental NGOs to safely relocate wildlife species before they come in harm’s way.
These requests have been ignored, according to Attard, with authorities “reluctant to impose more obligations on developers”.
PN MPs decry works
The Mistra excavation works have caught the attention of PN MPs Graziella Galea and Ivan Castillo, both of whom took to social media to criticise the ongoing works.
Galea described the decision to begin works before the court’s decision as “disrespectful towards residents”.
Meanwhile Castillo asked: “When are we going to start to consider the impact on the community of such developments? We talk a lot about quality of life… but they seem to be empty words used in empty speeches”.
Both MPs subsequently raised the issue in parliamentary sittings.