Notary Maria Vella Magro, who has been doing notarial research for residents caught up in legal challenges over a land dispute in Nadur with a medieval foundation, denied suggestions of a conflict of interest after her brother applied to build flats on land in Qala acquired from the Beneficcju ta Sant Antonio delli Navarra.
Her brother, Euchar Vella, of Karkanja Developments Ltd, one of Gozo’s largest developers, last December applied to build a block of 10 flats on land at Ta’ Marġa that is held under emphyteusis by Dei Conti Holdings Ltd.
Dei Conti Holdings is owned by the six Stagno Navarra siblings, whom the Archdiocese suddenly accepted as the patrons of the foundation after years of battling for the land.
A joint investigation by The Shift and Lovin Malta has revealed the layering of companies benefitting from tracts of land pertaining to a 350-year-old foundation called Beneficcju ta’ Sant Antonio delli Navarra. The names behind the companies include an ex-magistrate and a lawyer. Developable parcels of the lands are being passed to large developers in Gozo.
Questions remain over the foundation’s rightful claim over lands in Nadur already hosting dozens of families and the haste with which the Land Registry approved ownership in the foundation’s favour despite Latin deeds dating back centuries.
News of Euchar Vella’s application a few weeks ago quickly spread in Nadur, undermining confidence in Vella Magro at a time when the largest number of Nadur residents affected by the Nadur registrations have been using her services for the notarial research on their properties. The point of the research is to file legal challenges, technically known as ‘cautions’, at the Land Registry.
“Everyone who knows me well understands that I value my clients and profession dearly,” Vella Magro told the investigation.
“I do not work for anyone who does not trust me as trust is crucial in notarial work,” she added. “So I publicly ask those clients on whose documents we are working to come and take all the documents if they do not have trust in me. I will not take it personally.”
Her brother, Euchar, told The Shift and Lovin Malta that agreement to buy the two plots in Qala was reached in “mid-April 2019” – nine months before the foundation registered the Nadur lands.
“I had no idea what was coming then,” he said, in reference to the registrations in Nadur that have caused anxiety among dozens of families in the village.
Sources said that he may still not have bought the plot in Qala yet – he also spoke of an “agreement to buy”, not having bought – even though he declared, in the Planning Authority application, that he is “an owner” of the site.
His sister, the notary, separately said she will refuse to sign any deeds in which the benefice or, as she calls it, the Abbazia is involved as a party to the deed ( ‘Abbazia’ is the old name for the office of the foundation set up by Cosmana Navarra in 1675).
Euchar expressed indignation when describing his experience at the Land Registry, claiming that an application to register a parcel of land by his company was rejected “because we forgot to mark a 3-foot wide right of way in favour of a third party” a few months before foundation’s applications were approved despite straddling an alley.
The Karkanja siblings are descendants of a landowning family. Their family’s house dominates the square and they also have a private church built on land that, ironically, was granted to the family by the benefice in 1901.
They are also embroiled in the land registration dispute. They have a piece of land on the areas registered that is the largest of the lot.
For several weeks, rumours have circulated that the benefice has bought the land in Nadur from the family, or clinched some kind of deal.
These rumours have intensified since news of Euchar Vella’s application for the flats in Qala broke.
Vella Magro refutes this, saying that “my siblings and I are definitely not involved in any negotiations of any nature on the land behind the Sacred Heart Church [their private church] in Nadur.”
Residents’nervousness is partly driven by anxiety over what happened in Nadur and partly by distrust of developers. There is increasing resentment in Gozo at waves of blocks of flats that are progressively destroying the island’s character and way of life.
Euchar Vella is one of the developers building a proportion of these controversial blocks. Even in Qala, at Ta’ Marġa, the local council has already objected on the grounds that it “will intensify development, use and take-up in ODZ which is not legitimate and/or necessary and put further strain on traffic and other infrastructure in the locality.”
Karkanja Developments has also courted controversy over a massive development in Xagħra, where the developer has applied to incorporate a 51-room hotel to a development of around 100 flats that have already been granted permission. The new plans would turn the development to an eight-storey block situated just 27 metres from a historical church and partly falling in an Urban Conservation Area.
The Superintendence of Cultural Heritage has “strongly objected”, as has the Xagħra Local Council.
Notary Vella Magro said she “foresaw” that at one point she would be accused of conflict of interest or other accusations simply because her family has the largest plot on the properties registered by the foundation.
For this reason, she added, she “asked all persons who decided to come to me to also seek legal advice from their respective lawyers. The cautions were signed by their lawyers after they vetted the document.”
She indicated that she suspects that those who stand to benefit from the land registration – whom she refers to as the “Abbazia clan” – may be fanning rumours and putting pressure to force people into negotiating with them.
“I understand the worry, the tension, and literally the desperation of the people affected by these registrations,” she explains. “For a number of people whose properties have been registered by the Abbazia, these constitute their only residence.”
“Moreover, people in Nadur are very proud and protective of their properties and treasure them dearly. Families try to retain their properties in the family for future generations, especially when situated in the core of the village. Land for sale in Nadur is more scarce compared to some other villages.”
She vows that she will not “succumb to any pressure from the Abbazia clan”.
This is part of an investigative series being published jointly by The Shift and Lovin Malta about an ongoing land dispute in Gozo. The investigative team had strategic and research input by Caroline Muscat and Chris Peregin.