An application for a hotel in Xagħra square that is due to be heard on Thursday morning by the Planning Authority’s (PA) Board has had the name of the applicant change back and forth twice in recent months.
In the last change, on the eve of the hearing, the application reverted to the original applicant Mark Agius, a developer involved in several controversial developments in Gozo.
The Shift wrote to the PA on Tuesday night to inquire about the inconsistencies in the applicant’s name on different documents.
The Malta Tourism Authority had issued a hotel permit to Agius on behalf of Ben Hotels, but the name of the applicant on the PA website and the case officer report was Joseph Vella – a name that does not come up in registration records of Ben Hotels.
In a reply yesterday afternoon, a PA spokesperson said: “(A) Change of Applicant Form was submitted this morning informing the Authority that the applicant is being reverted back to Mark Agius obo (on behalf of) J. Agius and Sons, and therefore the Authority’s website has now been updated to show the latest applicant name”.
The spokesperson said Agius was the initial applicant, but that was changed “in December” until it eventually reverted back yesterday. He added that the case officer report had been endorsed on 6 March, and “issued under the name of the applicant Joseph Vella.”
Yet, the MTA had sent a copy of the Tourism Policy Compliance Certificate to Agius on 13 February, and copied the certificate on correspondence to the PA on 18 February. The MTA wrote to Agius saying the certificate would “enable you to proceed with your development application”.
The applicant registered at the PA at the time was Vella, and the case officer two weeks later put Vella’s name in his report.
The PA spokesperson played down the significance of these changes by saying the PA “evaluates a planning application on the basis of its proposed land use, as presented to it through the plans and drawings” and that whoever the applicant happens to be “is not a planning consideration” (unless it pertains to agriculture projects).
Directorate recommends refusal
The proposed four-storey hotel in one of Gozo’s liveliest squares is designed to hold nine ensuite guest rooms and restaurant at ground level. The proposal seeks to retain the façade of a post-war townhouse and demolish the rest of the building, as well as gouge the bedrock for a basement. The bulk of the four stories would be crammed behind the existent high façade.
In its report, the planning directorate takes issue with the height of the proposed building, also within the context of a recessed fourth floor. It also objects to any excavation that would have an “irreversible impact on the Area of Archeological Importance” – the site is within the surroundings of the archaeological zone of interest related to Ġgantija Temples.
The directorate recommended refusal of the permit based on these reasons as well as issues with disabled access.
The PA did not ask the Xagħra Local Council to nominate someone to sit on the Board during Thursday’s meeting, according to sources. It indicates this proposal is not considered significant or major by the Planning Authority.
The issues around the controversy
On Wednesday morning, The Shift wrote to Agius with questions about the application form – he applied as a “private individual” rather than a company, and he declared that he was the “sole owner of the entire site.” He was asked if the site belongs solely to him or to Ben Hotels.
He replied saying the “information given is correct” and that Ben Hotels was family-owned. This was verified by The Shift through company registration records.
Although it is not known why Agius declared sole ownership – or why the applicant’s name was changed back and forth – Agius’ applications are bound to attract scrutiny because of his involvement in several controversial developments.
These include a block of flats behind the church in San Lawrenz that is subject to a case in the constitutional court, a permit to turn a tiny ruined structure in Qala into a pool villa that triggered widespread outrage last year, and a conversion of a townhouse into a hotel outside the Citadel in Rabat that has led to an ongoing case in Gozo’s criminal court.
During works on the townhouse in Rabat, a wall collapsed. The wall, according to a letter of the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage, “abuts the counter-scarp of the covert way in front the ditch” that’s part of the “historical fortifications.” A magisterial inquiry was held, and upon its conclusion the PA “issued a letter to prosecute against the owner and architect of the project”.
Replying to questions by The Shift, Agius denied having “caused any damage to the Citadel’s fortifications”. He added that the “damage was to a party wall owned by us” and that the wall “was not part of the fortifications.”
Ongoing proceedings in the criminal court are currently suspended due to the coronavirus shutdown.
Read what happened at the PA hearing.