Joseph Azzopardi, 72, spent decades tending to a garden on government-owned land in a Żebbuġ neighbourhood. 

Then, last week and without any warning, the bulldozers pulled up. 

Azzopardi said he "nearly had a heart attack" when they showed up to destroy the patch of land on Triq il-Fraxxnu. 

“My neighbour knocked on the door (I was half asleep) to tell me to go outside because they’re knocking down the garden, they brought trucks and bulldozers,” Azzopardi said.

The senior citizen was one of many residents of Żebbuġ's Ħal Mula area to tell Times of Malta they opposed Infrastructure Malta's plans to widen the small residential road. 

Out of 20 residents Times of Malta spoke to, eight were against the road-widening exercise, three were in favour and another three were indifferent but provided some form of comment. Another six did not wish to comment or felt like they did not have anything to say about it.

Azzopardi, who besides tending to the garden had also successfully objected to its removal in 2016, had also been encouraged by Żebbuġ’s local council to take care of the garden.

“What kind of action is this? Why would you do that?” Azzopardi kept asking the workers as 11 grapefruit vines were removed to widen a road by less than a metre’s worth of space.

“Isn’t this government land? Go tell Ian Borg that, isn’t this what they wanted? The government built this, this has always been here. What’s illegal about this?” he argued.

A resident speaks about the garden being destroyed. Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Azzopardi also told Times of Malta that he had spent money out of his own pocket to purchase equipment to till the soil and maintain the grove.

He said it is not true that a petition was signed by residents calling for the road to be widened, as claimed by Infrastructure Malta’s CEO. The residents Times of Malta spoke to did not seem to know anything about the petition.

‘The street is wider, nicer’

The three residents who spoke favourably of the road-widening exercise mentioned that the road would become more useful if it was opened up.

They complained of people leaving their cars parked in front of their houses, arguing that it was a recurring problem that had not been resolved.

Why are they widening the road? Is it because of development permits in the area, so we can build five-storey apartment blocks here, as well?

One resident, in particular, said she was “100 per cent sure” that the widening of the road was necessary.

She also believes that a wider road would mean fewer accidents, and that people were against it because “they got used to the area not changing for decades and that progress shouldn’t be stopped.”

‘It’s a minor project for a minor road’

Another three residents dismissed concerns about the project, arguing that it hardly made any difference.

They agreed that the road was narrow but didn’t specify alternatives.

However, one of those neutral about the project later added that “it was not right for the authorities to show up like that” without any prior notice.

‘Seeing them uproot those grapevines moved me to tears’

Those in opposition objected to varying degrees. One resident, who says he had been working with Azzopardi on pruning and maintaining the trees, said that he cried when he saw the scene.

“It wasn’t necessary... I love the fact that this area is widely spaced and has trees and potted plants around every corner,” he said.

All of the other residents against the project shared the same sentiment, many of whom also voiced anger at the unannounced project.

They also sympathised with Azzopardi’s situation, arguing that he had developed a good relationship with neighbours.

“Why are they widening the road? Is it because of development permits in the area, so we can build five-storey apartment blocks here, as well?” one resident asked.

“I understand we need to develop the infrastructure, but we must do so sustainably,” he added.

Another common point of discussion was the fact that the road is barely used, according to the residents.

“Joseph took really good care of every single plant he had in that garden. Why did they take them away from him to widen a secondary road?” another noted.

While most of the residents against the project acknowledged that Azzopardi did not own the land, they appreciated his work and often got to share the spoils as a community.

“If anything, they should thank him for taking the time to do that,” one resident quipped.

“I don’t think the way they widened the road makes a really big difference, anyway, it doesn’t make sense. You either widen it by a full lane or you don’t, so we lost trees for nothing,” another added.

On Wednesday, Infrastructure Minister Ian Borg said the Żebbuġ council had asked for road-widening in Triq il-Fraxxnu. However, he failed to back up his claim, especially in light of the council’s adamant protest against the project.

Nonetheless, Borg said that “Infrastructure Malta had all the permits it needed” and that the agency’s work “is what it is and is appreciated by a lot of people.”

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