Joseph Portelli behind three large developments set to ‘change the character of Xlendi forever’

Property magnate Joseph Portelli and his associates are behind three large adjacent developments in Xlendi that have been harshly criticised for their impact on the picturesque bay in Gozo, The Shift can reveal.

Although coverage of two of the projects currently at application stage has been widespread, the three developments, including a third one already under construction, were never connected to Portelli and his associates – Mark Agius and Daniel Refalo.

The applications for Planning Authority permits were filed under different names.

In its investigation, The Shift also found out that marketing for the sale of the flats started last February – on the same day that a development application was submitted for the largest of the three clusters consisting of 56 parking places on three underground levels, topped by 66 flats on seven storeys with a frontage of 55 metres.

An earlier application for the smallest of the three blocks, situated across the road and consisting of 28 flats and six garages over seven storeys, was submitted eight days earlier, on 18 February.

A permit for the smallest block was issued on 22 May. The application for the second block of 66 flats is set to be decided on Wednesday. Meanwhile, sources in Gozo have told The Shift that some of the flats have already been purchased, outright or through promise of sale agreements, even though the permit has not yet been issued.

The two applications – including the one that’s scheduled for Wednesday – were filed by Joseph Vella. He was the owner of the entire land and property, including the disused Xlendi Hotel on which the third development application sits. Inquiries into whether Vella remains the owner – he might have a private arrangement with the developer, such as a promise of sale agreement – were inconclusive.

A Joseph Vella also appeared for some time on an application for a hotel in Xaghra Square that was then transferred to Mark Agius who is Portelli’s partner on a number of projects in Gozo. His company appears on a Facebook flier promoting the flats for sale in Xlendi. He also fronts the third application for development.

Gozitan NGO Wirt Għawdex said last week that the developments, which would tower over the bay, “will change the aesthetics and character of the bay forever”. They join the local council and residents objecting to the massive developments.

Joseph Portelli is the developer behind the controversial Mercury Towers in St Julian’s.

Playing for permits

In the third application, which is at the vetting stage, Agius applied to demolish the disused Xlendi Hotel and then excavate the bedrock as “phase 1 of a redevelopment project”.

At one point, on the PA server, there were architectural drawings of the redevelopment, but these drawings were removed around three weeks ago at around the same time that posts on the project spread widely on Facebook.

Asked how the PA can grant a permit for demolition and excavation without knowing what would come afterwards or when, a spokesperson for the PA said: “As in other similar scenarios, if the PA decides to grant planning permission a non-executable permit is issued. This means that the permit may only be used if the second phase (for construction works) is approved in a separate application”.

A planning expert consulted by The Shift described this reply as a “fudge”. The source said there is nothing in law that specifies that a phase 1 permit for demolition and excavation is non-executable, and this is not standard practice either – it’s merely at the discretion of the planning board whether to make a groundwork permit non-executable conditional on the second redevelopment permit being granted.

The source explained that developers apply in stages to make the development more palatable or achievable.

“Once you have a gaping hole in the ground,” the source said, “then the site is committed and the PA would be more inclined to grant a permit to the proposal that would follow.”

An overview of Xlendi Bay including the “gaping hole in the ground” ready for one of the three developments.

Local Council and residents object

“The Planning Authority has to understand that the policies in force and these kinds of massive developments are going to create problems for the residents, especially in parking and possible overload on sewage system,” said Damien Spiteri, Mayor of Munxar, which incorporates Xlendi.

He was talking to The Shift after the council wrote to the PA chairperson last Friday to express the council’s cocnern about the “visual impact” and load on infrastructure, particularly since these developments are likely to lead to others of similar magnitude.

“It has to be tackled holistically, but a precedent has already been set with an earlier massive block of flats,” he said. “One of the concerns we expressed in the letter is that granting these two large developments could encourage other large projects along Triq Il-Punici”.

This may already be happening: sources told The Shift that a block of 90 flats is planned on the grounds of a large private garden of mature trees a stone’s throw down the road. (To date no application for the site appears on the PA server.)

Half a dozen residents, who preferred to remain unnamed, have also formally objected to the development application that’s set to be decided on Wednesday. In their letter the residents maintained that the proposal’s magnitude jars with planning policies, including Urban Objective 4, which seeks to “ensure” that new developments respect “a sense of place, respond to the local character, and improve amenity and the pleasantness of place.”

They called on the PA to reject the application unless the building is “significantly scaled down”. They also called for a “geological risk assessment”.

The Planning Directorate responded by stating that the proposal complies with policies “in height and massing” and that “geological risk assessment does not fall within the remit of the PA”.

In a further letter, sent on 1 September, the residents’ lawyer accused the directorate of interpreting policies in “the narrowest possible manner, clearly failing to take the wider context into account”.

The ones in the middle

The owners of a six-storey block of rental flats that stands between the two proposed developments are also concerned.

They invested considerable effort and money into refurbishing the flats some years ago and refused to sell when the developers approached them to buy the block, sources have confirmed.

When contacted by The Shift, they declined to comment on the reasons for not selling or any wider issues related to the developments. They did, however, express concern about the property.

“We are obviously worried about our property during excavation, particularly if they excavate the bedrock simultaneously on either side of our building,” one of the owners said.

                           
                               

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