The surprise court decision halting the db Group City Centre project warns all Planning Authority board members they may need to recuse themselves from a second vote on the project, legal analysts told Times of Malta.
A Court of Appeal on Wednesday nullified the PA’s approval of the 37-storey tower and 17-storey hotel in Pembroke last September, ruling that one of the board members had a conflict of interest due to a financial involvement with one of the real estate agencies marketing the project.
But in his verdict, judge Mark Chetcuti also said that “all board members should carefully consider whether their position is tenable in the new adjudication of the project… to prevent a repetition of this episode in view of the fact that they have already expressed their position on the matter”.
Several legal experts told Times of Malta they interpreted this as a warning that, having already declared themselves for or against the project by voting on it, board members could be challenged over a lack of impartiality if the application - as is expected - comes before them for a new decision.
“The judge has taken them to the cliff edge and said in no uncertain terms that they have taken a decision and may very well have to recuse themselves and abstain. However, he is leaving the decision up to the individual members,” one said.
The judge has taken them to the cliff edge
Every single board member was present - itself a rare occurrence – for the hearing that approved the project by 10 votes to four last September, but two of those members – Timmy Gambin and Desiree Cassar - have since been replaced.
Of the current board, therefore, only the two replacements – architects Duncan Mifsud and Deborah Busuttil – have not pronounced themselves on the project.
Lawyer Claire Bonello, who represented the local councils and residents behind the appeal against the project, described the court’s warning as “new territory” and said it was yet to be seen how it would affect an eventual future hearing.
It has not yet been confirmed what the path forward is for the controversial €300 million project, with the Planning Authority saying only it was still studying the court’s decision.
One legal source said the nature of the decision, which they described as possibly without precedent, meant the developers were now in the position they had been in immediately before the application was decided by the authority.
As well as the original PA decision, the verdict also cancelled a decision by a planning appeals tribunal in February that confirmed the permit, where the court said arguments for rejecting the claim of conflict of interest had been “poorly thought out and could give rise to the semblance of complacency towards a lack of impartiality”.
However, the court did not call into question any other aspects of the process, specifically stating that it would not be ruling on any of the grounds of appeal other than the conflict of interest claim.
Dr Bonello said these issues would still need to be addressed at some point, adding that it was still possible the developers would need to resubmit their plans. Moreover, she said, new objections and issues could be raised in any new decision process.