Controversial Ta’ Muxi permit in Qala withdrawn

Two board members who had voted in favour of a controversial permit to build a swimming pool and farmhouse in the picturesque area of Ta’ Muxi in Qala had both failed to declare a separate conflict of interest, according to an appeal document filed by the Qala local council and two NGOs.

Also, while the application listed Mark Agius as the sole owner of the property, this, however, was not the case as the site was owned by Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli in his personal capacity or through a company he owned, the appeal said.

“The statement by applicant Mark Agius who certified that he was the sole owner of the entire site in his personal capacity is contradicted by the many public announcements made by Joseph Portelli,” it pointed out.

These were two of several arguments put forward by lawyer Claire Bonello in the joint appeal filed by the Qala council, Din l-Art Helwa and Nature Trust before the Environment and Planning Tribunal. The Environment and Resources Authority had also filed a separate appeal. The permit was withdrawn by the planning authority last week.

One conflict of interest was that Alfred Pule – a board member who had voted in favour of the application – had not declared his relationship with Agius or Portelli. Pule had purchased a plot in Lija and filed a planning application on part of it – but so did Portelli. The Gozitan developer listed himself as the sole owner of the site and the development was also advertised on Portelli’s business Facebook page – as well as by Agius Projects Ltd, the same company of whom Agius is a director.

“It is clear that Pule is not a disinterested and impartial party when it comes to Portelli, Agius or any companies controlled by either or both,” the appeal said.

There was also a business relationship between the three men and the companies owned by Agius and Portelli, who had loaned money to Pule, “which denotes some level of linkage”.

The board member’s position was a clear breach of the law, it added.

The appeal also highlighted that another planning board member, Elizabeth Ellul, had failed to declare a conflict of interest. She first came across the application when it was presented to Planning Commission of which she is the chairperson. When this was sent to the Planning Board, Ellul voted in favour of the permit and against the recommendation of the Planning Directorate, which had called for its refusal.

“She did so, despite having been specifically alerted to the fact that her husband architect Andrew Ellul and her daughter architect Anne Marie Ellul were the architects of at least two of Joseph Portelli’s building projects or that of his associates,” the appeal said.

The news that the permit was withdrawn was welcomed by Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg.

“I am very satisfied that we won the appeal because it was clear that the appeal document went into a lot of detail and this scared the developers,” he told The Shift.

The issue revolves around a permit for “the restoration of existing structures and extensions and construction of a swimming pool” that allowed the applicant, listed as Agius, to turn a 31 square metre room in the idyllic countryside of Ta’ Muxi into a 200 square metre villa with swimming pool.

An appeals hearing was due to take place last week but those involved were informed that the planning authority had withdrawn the permit. It is understood the developer had failed to pay the necessary fees.

The permit, which had been granted in October, had been recommended for refusal by the case officer, who pointed out that the building itself had been disuse since 1978. It was also recommended for refusal by the Environment and Resources Authority and Superintendence of Cultural Heritage.

The proposed extensions were “considered substantial” when compared to the size of the existing building and the swimming pool was also an issue as “the residential use on the site has not yet been legally established”.

The application was originally presented to a planning commission, which had requested a Post Recommendation Team to analyse the case and all the submissions made.

But the appeal said this request was “totally irregular, illegal” and beyond the team’s remit.

“As a quasi-judiciary body, the Planning Commission should analyse and motivate its own decisions – not try to shunt them off on Authority employees,” it said.

The applicant then submitted fresh plans that were scaled down but these were still considered to be objectionable by the planning directorate.

During the hearing in October, Buttigieg had pointed out that the area was yet unspoilt by development and should be retained and protected as such.

However, it was approved by seven votes in favour and four against. Planning authority chairman Vince Cassar, Professor Victor Axiak, Annick Bonello and former Nationalist MP Marthese Portelli were those who voted against the development.

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