It's not every day that the planning authority is faced with criticism from landowners protesting that their property has been included in the development scheme, but that is exactly what is happening in Attard.

The de Trafford family are outraged that Mepa has incorporated part of their villa's gardens within the scheme for two-storey development.

"I'm shocked," Mrs Charlot de Trafford said, insisting that any development of the sort would ruin the character of their unique historic villa.

There is no imminent threat as the de Traffords have no intention to sell the land in question, having just turned down an offer from someone interested in buying the villa.

Theirs, in fact, is no ordinary villa. Villa Bologna was built as a dowry in the 18th century and has been inherited in a noble line which included the former Prime Minister Gerald Strickland ever since.

Described by Maltese nobility researcher Nicholas de Piro as the most beautiful 18th century country house to be built for a Maltese family, the estate is now threatened by speculative development, the owners insist.

Besides a sizeable chunk of the gardens, a vacant plot adjacent to the property has also been earmarked for three-storey development.

The case has attracted the attention of environmental campaigners such as Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, Din l-Art Helwa and Alternattiva Demokratika as well as that of historian Henry Frendo, who described the prospect of having development within the villa's walls as inconceivable.

The owners were, until recently, unaware that their property and this vacant plot had been included in the development scheme but have now hired former Mepa assistant audit officer Carmel Cacopardo to help them reverse the process. They want the entire villa to be scheduled and the plot next to theirs declared a green area.

During an onsite press conference, Mr Cacopardo yesterday claimed that the inclusion of the gardens at Villa Bologna was not part of the original 2002 local plan draft which was approved last year, highlighting that this meant that no consultation on the inclusion of this land had taken place.

However, Mepa forcefully denied this later in the afternoon, insisting that on the contrary, the whole of Villa Bologna had been scheduled for development in the original draft but was eventually left out in the final draft, save for this tract of land.

When it came to the part they left out, Mepa defended its decision to allow development within the villa's walls on the grounds that no objection had been raised by anyone during the local plans process.

When asked why the authority still included the land, despite the fact that nobody had asked for this, Mr Calleja said that the authority's experts deemed the site as not meriting any special protection.

When faced with the incredulity of the environmental organisations and Prof. Frendo, Mr Calleja insisted that those who were now showing themselves as the "paladins" of heritage should have spoken out when the consultation process was being carried out.

In the end, however, while excluding any changes to the local plan affecting the land outside the villa's walls, Mr Calleja said the authority was willing to schedule the whole of the villa including the part of the garden on which development would be permitted, if the owners so wish.

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