The granting of a permit to Joseph Portelli’s partner Mark Agius for a block of 22 flats near Ta’ Cenc cliffs on the fringes of Sannat in Gozo less than two weeks ago has opened the way for two larger blocks in what is shaping into a three-stage, larger development of 125 flats.
Marketing for the 22 flats on Facebook began on 10 August last year, five days after Agius’ application was ‘validated’ by the Planning Authority. The flyer for the block of flats, named Ħal Saguna after the area, bore the logos of the three associate companies belonging to Joseph Portelli, the brothers Mark and Joseph Agius, and Daniel Refalo respectively. The flats started to be sold before the permit for the block was issued.
The same people are the owners of Excel Investments Ltd, which is behind the controversial residential project in Qala of more than 150 flats that were similarly applied for – and put together – in different stages. Applications in the sprawling Qala flats were put in by four different individuals, and like the pieces in a jigsaw eventually came together to form a larger residential project with a gross floor area of over 30,000 square metres – a size that would have triggered screening for a possible Environment Impact Assessment.
The Qala project is one of Gozo’s largest-ever residential developments. The new project for three blocks set to hold 125 flats in Sannat is not far behind in terms of size.
The indication that the smallest of the three blocks in Sannat would be approved, for 22 flats and 15 garages, became evident in the Planning Commission meeting of 9 February that discussed minor tweakings to the plan to address the reasons for refusal. Shortly afterwards the applications for the other two larger adjacent blocks were submitted. An application for a block of 74 flats with 60 underlying garages was submitted on 27 February – this block is set to be separated from the other two by a new road eight metres wide.
The applicant, Samuel Saliba, declared he is “an owner of the entire site” on the application form for the 74 flats, while the applicant on Planning Authority’s website, as well as the site notice, is shown to be Mark Agius.
The third application, consisting of 29 flats and 30 garages, was put in by Joseph Vella on 5 March. Vella also declared that he is “an owner of the entire site” in the application form.
The same name has appeared in at least another two times in development applications by Joseph Portelli and his associates – he appeared on the applications for developments in Xlendi as well as a hotel in Xagħra’s square.
The flats in Sannat are just over 300 metres from the edge of the cliffs where Birdlife International warns about the effects of intensifying light pollution, and noise pollution to a lesser extent, on one of the largest colonies of nesting shearwaters – scopoli’s as well as yelkouan – in the Mediterranean. The cliffs are an internationally Important Bird Area (IBA), and Birdlife International has identified “residential and commercial development” in the surroundings as a “high threat” to the IBA.
In its analysis of the application for the block of 22 flats, granted a permit on 23 March, the Planning Directorate made no mention of concerns over intensifying development due to the proximity of the IBA.
The case officer recommended refusal, mostly due to the significant encroachment beyond development lines and due to the height of the block.
The applicant then made minor tweaks by reducing the encroachment into the Outside Development Zone to a swimming pool and decking area that is 177 square metres, which the Directorate said is less than the maximum of 180 square metres allowable in terms of the Rural Policy Design Guidance.
The much-criticised rural policy has itself been under review. A public consultation exercise on a revamped policy was announced with much fanfare by Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia at the beginning of last July, when he asserted that the new policy would protect the environment and limit development in the countryside to genuine agricultural uses. The public consultation closed last August, but the new policy has yet to be published or adopted.
As for the height of the block, the objection of the case officer was dismissed by the executive chairperson of the Planning Authority, Martin Saliba, who “noted” the new “height interpretations” set in a meeting of the Executive Council in which it was decided that buildings within the so-called Edge 1 policy zone in Gozo, which normally refers to buildings at the boundaries of development zones, could have a façade of 12.3 metres and overall height of 16.9 metres in line with a 2015 policy document. That’s higher than the previous interpretation of “a height limitation of three floors plus three courses basement.”
The Executive Council had adopted that “interpretation” in reference to a particular development application for a building in Nadur that was not in itself on the edge of the development zone. That building was instead sandwiched in a block of buildings; it was the block itself that lay on the fringes of the built-up area.
The new interpretation is set to loosen controls in the Gozo Local Plan that sought to mitigate the visual impact of buildings at the edge of development zones in Gozo.
At Ta’ Saguna, the application for 29 flats currently in the works also seeks to repeat the success of the application granted on 23 March, with the pool area similarly extending beyond the development line as in the case of the development already granted.