Around 200 objections have been submitted to the Planning Authority over plans to build large ‘solar greenhouses’ in an untouched stretch of land close to St Thomas Bay in Marsascala.

The site on the Munxar promontory is part of a scheduled as an Area of High Landscape Value due to its significant natural and cultural landscape and close to the Grade 1 scheduled Rihama Battery.

The proposal, which is still being assessed by the PA, seeks the building of several large greenhouses covering some 4,000 square metres and topped with photovoltaic panels, as well as a reservoir, pump room and agricultural store. It will also sanction an illegally-built gate which has been the subject of an enforcement notice since 2011.

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage (SCH) has expressed its “apprehension” over the development, warning that the greenhouses “will be very visible and impact the existing context”.

Highlighting the area’s protected status and the recorded megalithic remains in the surrounding Xrobb l-Għaġin area, the SCH said “the planning, management and protection of Maltese landscapes is to be guided by the principles enshrined in the European Landscape Convention”.

The Marsascala local council has also objected, as it said it had done with similar applications in the past, citing the area’s ecological value.

“Areas of ecological importance should be left in their natural conditions and no development should be proposed,” the council said.

The application is now being assessed by the Planning Directorate case officer after the close of public consultation on May 4.

The case officer will produce a recommendation ahead of a final decision expected in July.

Residents and others who submitted their own objections called for the area to be kept untouched and expressed fears that the current application would be precursor to more expansive developments in the area.

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Heritage group Wirt iż-Żejtun claimed the project ran contrary to the solar farms policy, which generally bans such developments in open countryside.

Applicant Rennie Scicluna had previously applied to convert the land in Munxar into an agritourism complex, including accommodation, a restaurant, health and fitness centre, conference centre, animal farm and greenhouses.

The proposal was met with harsh criticism from environmental groups who described it as a hotel development in disguise, as well as the Marsascala local council, and was shot down by the PA in a screening letter. The authority said the proposal was incompatible with the conservation of the area’s rural characteristics and scheduling status.

The 2017 solar farms policy specifically excludes open countryside, protected or scenic areas, Natura 2000 sites and land registered for agricultural purposes, but makes no reference to greenhouse installations.

During public consultation on the policy, the PA indicated that the visual impact arising from these projects would be “assessed with mitigation measures in place on a case-by-case basis”.

The Planning Authority has already approved nearly 20,000 square metres of solar panels on greenhouses or in rural areas, with pending applications potentially tripling that area in the coming months.

The policy aims to increase the generation of clean energy by up to 50MW peak and help reach the EU2020 target of having 10 per cent of total energy generation from renewable sources. This figure now stands at six per cent.

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