The decision over an application to build a sprawling villa in the place of countryside ruins outside Qala has been transferred away from the Planning Commission to the higher board of the Planning Authority.

The decision was taken yesterday at a closed-doors meeting of the Planning Board chaired by Vince Cassar.

The unexpected decision came a few days before the Planning Commission, headed by Elizabeth Ellul, was due to hand down a final verdict on what has proved to be a highly controversial application. PA sources yesterday said the “unusual but not uncommon” decision was seconded by the board members following a proposal of the chairman himself.

“The PA is growing very anxious over this application, particularly due to the developments reported by Times of Malta about both the application itself and its handling by Ms Ellul’s commission,” a source said.

“This is why, even to ease the pressure on Ms Ellul herself, this sensitive application will now be decided in a board meeting held in public.”

Times of Malta is informed that the application is on the Planning Board’s agenda for October 31.

The PA is growing very anxious over this application

The application hit the headlines last July when Times of Malta revealed that Gozitan construction magnate Joseph Portelli wanted to turn the ruins of a 31-square-metre rural room in the pristine countryside surrounding Qala – in an Outside Development Zone – into a large villa and outside space covering 4,000 square metres of agricultural land.

The law stipulates that the application could only be considered if the place was proven to have been used as a residence at least until 1978. So, the developers provided a 1921 death certificate of an 84-year-old farmer, who was certified dead in the area.

Despite the objections of the Environment and Resources Authority, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, the Qala local council and NGOs declaring that the application was a non-starter, the commission defended the application. The chair criticised the directorate for not considering the death certificate as proof of residence.

Times of Malta then published documents taken from the Qala parish archives, which showed that the farmer was actually registered as living at an address inside Qala.

It also revealed a potential conflict of interest: one of the developers behind the project, Joseph Portelli, was using Ms Ellul’s husband as his architect in other development projects.

Ms Ellul has rejected any suggestion of conflict of interest, stating that she did not know the identity of  her husband’s clients.

Timeline of Qala ODZ application:

March, 31, 2016: Bernardette Anne Foster files a development application for the demolition of existing dilapidated dwelling and construction of a house.

May 10, 2017: Development application is withdrawn on the applicant’s request.

January 19, 2019: Excel Investments Ltd, owned by Joseph Portelli and Mark Agius, buy Qala ODZ land from a large Qala family for €500,000.

January 22, 2019: Agius files development application for the restoration of existing structures, extensions and construction of a swimming pool.

February 7, 2019: ERA objects to development.

February 13, 2019: Planning Authority validates application.

March 1, 2019: Superintendence of Cultural Heritage objects to development application.

March 26, 2019: PA asks developers for notarial declaration and proof that the dilapidated room was used as a residence until 1978 (as per law).

May 20, 2019: Applicants present notarial declaration by Dr Kristen Dimech submitting a 1921 death certificate of a farmer found dead in the area of the dilapidated room. According to applicants, this constitutes proof of residence.

June 3, 2019: PA informs applicants that ERA and Superintendence are still objecting to the development and asks whether applicants want to carry it further.

June 3, 2019: Architect Alexander Bigeni informs PA that applicants want application process to proceed despite the objections.

June 24, 2019: PA case officer report recommends refusal of application and states that development infringes several polices.

July 7, 2019: Times of Malta reports on the controversial case.

July 9, 2019: Planning Commission starts hearing case. Chair Elizabeth Ellul says board is concerned that PA has recommended a refusal and orders directorate to prepare conditions for issue of permit.

August 6, 2019: Times of Malta reveals new documentation from Qala parish archive showing that the farmer who died in the area was actually registered as living in a house in the centre of Qala.

August 6, 2019: Planning directorate insists that application is a no-go. Ms Ellul asks architect to present fresh plans with significant  reduction of development footprint.

September 26, 2019: New plans are presented with slight amendments to the footprint.

September 30, 2019: Planning directorate issues updated report. Insists on outright refusal.

October 1, 2019: Ms Ellul reschedules decision for October 15.

October 10, 2011: Planning Board decides that case should be ‘undelegated’ from Planning Commission.

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