In a decision that has been characterised by Mayor Christian Zammit as “a victory for Gozo and Gozitans”, the Planning Authority (PA) on Thursday refused a development permit for a four-storey hotel in Xagħra’s town square.
Contacted by The Shift, Zammit sounded elated at the decision. He had led the council in its unanimous decision three months ago to put up a battle against the development, in which it was backed by hundreds of residents who signed a petition.
Thursday’s Planning Board meeting was the second hearing on the development application. Prior to the first hearing four months ago, an investigation by The Shift had revealed that the name of the applicant had changed between two persons back and forth, with the name reverting to Mark Agius on the eve of that first Planning Board hearing.
Agius, of Ta’ Dirjanu supermarkets, is a business partner in several contentious developments spearheaded by property magnate Joseph Portelli. He is also behind the development of another hotel outside the Citadel that has generated much controversy and led to a case in the Criminal Court after the collapse of a section of the back of the building that touches the Citadel’s outer fortifications.
In the case of the hotel in Xagħra’s town square that was refused, the proposal for a 19-room hotel and restaurant set over four floors as well as a basement would have necessitated knocking down the building while retaining the façade.
In the meeting, the council’s representatives focused their submission on the objectionableness of having to dig the bedrock for the basement – an objection mirrored by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage due to the location within the buffer zone of Ġgantija Neolithic Temples – as well as the development not falling in line with a new planning policy due to its proximity to the parish church. The Planning Directorate also recommended refusal.
The applicant’s architect countered by referring to three development permits that had been granted a few years ago for excavations into the bedrock within the Neolithic temples’ buffer zone. This is something that had been raised in the local council’s letter of objection, in which it had pointed out that “none of these was within the village square”.
Although two members of the Planning Board voted for the development by narrowly basing their rationale on consistency after the Authority had permitted these other developments, they were vastly outnumbered. The dynamic of the discussion also indicates that the vote swayed against the proposal for reasons wider than the issue of the basement alone.
In fact, two takeaways emerge from the Board discussion in the lead up to the vote. First, the policy on context in relation to applications located near historical buildings, which was published on 27 May 2020, has had an effect on the sensibility of the Planning Board.
Second, that precedent can be undone or overturned if reasons for doing so are sufficiently strong – in this case, a letter by the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage and a recommendation for refusal by the case officer as well as the policy on context.
“We believe this development would have caused a huge disturbance in the square,” the Xagħra mayor told The Shift after the refusal. “There is now a need for amendments to planning policies to save Gozo [from detrimental development]”.