The Seabank Hotel in Għadira will grow by 340 rooms into an outside development zone at the back of the property after the planning authority board yesterday unanimously approved the plan.

The extension was given the green light after a two-and-a-half hour meeting during which the Planning Directorate recommended approval.

The application was originally filed in 2005 for a low-lying bungalow-style development covering the whole site. On the directorate's recommendation, it was changed into a 10-storey building covering part of the site alongside the Mellieħa bypass.

The development will include a new reception area, landscaped gardens, pools and restaurants. Parts of it will be built below street level and the height will not exceed the existing hotel building.

A representative for hotel owner Silvio Debono argued that the extension was necessary to make the hotel economically viable.

The site lies outside the development zone but the Northwest Local Plan makes allowances for "restrained development".

Environmentalists argued that the development could hardly be described as "restrained" apart from gobbling up agricultural land. They highlighted that the Malta Environment and Planning Authority's heritage advisory committee had recommended refusal because of the agricultural land and the possible negative impact on the saline marsh that bordered the development.

However, the developer's consultant, Adrian Mallia, explained that most of the agricultural land was abandoned and the soil was not very deep.

The Mepa board turned down a request from the developer to reduce the amount of money he will have to contribute to the community in the form of a planning gain. However, they did accept his request to stagger the payment of the €150,000 sum.

In addition to the planning gain, the developer is obliged to submit a bank guarantee of €100,000 before works commence to ensure compliance with all permit conditions.

The developer was contractually bound to use the extension only for touristic purposes and the permit will be withdrawn if it ceases to be so. A similar condition was placed on the underground car park for 200 cars. It will have to be used solely for parking and not, for example, be turned into storerooms.

During the meeting, Mellieħa mayor Robert Cutajar spoke in favour of the development as did a number of Mellieħa shopowners and residents.

BirdLife's conservation manager Andrè Raine expressed concern about the impact of light and noise pollution on the bird sanctuary in the area and the important Yelkowan Sheerwater colony at L-Aħrax tal-Mellieħa.

Mr Mallia sympathised with Dr Raine's concerns but insisted the extension was shielded by the hotel building and so the light would not impact the Sheerwater colony.

The area already had an element of light and noise pollution, he added, pointing out there were other hotels and buildings near the property.

Mepa chairman Austin Walker said that although the extension impinged on ODZ land, the board was satisfied that the recommendations made by both the environment and planning directorates, on key principles of sustainable development, had been met.