The stakes are being driven for the wholesale pillaging of Gozo, and no one seems willing to do much to stop it.
Joseph Portelli has been the most ambitious assailant, submitting plans by stealth even as he files other applications openly. The latest project to come to light, as revealed by The Shift, is what looks like three blocks of 125 flats near Ta’ Cenc cliffs on the edge of Sannat — a location recognised as an internationally Important Bird Area.
Applications for the land-gobbling mega project were filed in three ‘separate’ pieces by Portelli’s partner Mark Agius, Samuel Saliba (who declared he owned the site), and Joseph Vella (a name that has appeared on two other applications by Portelli and associates).
In a sign of blind confidence — or a soothsayer’s ability to tell the future — flats were being marketed on Facebook before the permit was even issued.
And then there’s his groundbreaking 63-flat development in Qala, in which a shady foundation used dusty medieval deeds to grab large swathes of land. When you cobble the piecemeal permits together, the end result will be one of the island’s largest ever residential developments. Some 100 flats have already been built.
Who’s going to cram into all these empty apartments? Is Portelli expecting island-wide Electrogas power outages to result in a local baby boom? Such population micro-spikes have been known to happen during Canada’s cold winters. We may have underestimated Joseph Muscat’s roadmap to Malthusian doom.
At least we can be sure these new residents won’t go hungry, thanks to Portelli’s daughter Chloe’s agricultural store. The rubble walls used to justify her application were built on unspoilt arable land, and the ‘store’ itself will have unobstructed sea and countryside views.
But hey, they’ve got to feed their family — and the rest of the residents their developments hope to attract. The government made it even easier, dishing out €200,000 in EU funds to help build Chloe’s illegal walls, now sanctioned.
Joseph Portelli’s efforts — and bank balance — are also being supplemented by your taxes. The illegal concrete batching plant he and former Comino deck chair magnate Daniel Refalo are running is busy supplying the government’s new €9 million swimming pool and sports complex in Victoria. You know, the one that was recently renovated using EU funds.
Sports enthusiasts can thank Gozo Minister Clint ‘the doer’ Camilleri for rushing to tear this complex down so someone else can build it all over again.
Camilleri wasn’t alone in dishing out contracts to Prax Ltd, the company behind the illegal batching plant. Disgraced former Gozo Minister Justyne Caruana issued hundreds of thousands of euro in direct orders for ‘urgent’ road works using their concrete. By some odd coincidence, the batching plant just happens to be co-owned by the roadwork contractor.
The Planning Authority covered its eyes while this batching plant was being built, and the Lands Authority that owns the land continues to ignore the ongoing abuse of public property. To quote the scrupulously honest and brave Internet Oracle Evarist Bartolo: “The rule of family and the rule of friends is stronger than the rule of law.”
But Portelli isn’t the only one determined to cash in on the destruction of Malta’s peaceful sister island.
Damian Bigeni, a lawyer and consultant to the Gozo Minister, has been busy submitting his own applications one tiny slice at a time, swelling his dwelling beyond the development zone in Xagħra by stealth. His latest bid to build on prime clifftop land is focused on a site that, coincidentally, is right next to the plot where he got a development permit to build a four-storey house with a swimming pool using two previous separate applications. This latest bite is “explicitly limited to the rehabilitation or restoration of an existing old building” that no one is able to see from the roadside.
Each of Bigeni’s piecemeal applications was prepared by his brother, architect Alexander Bigeni, a close associate of Gozo Minister Camilleri who also appears on a number of developer Joseph Portelli’s more controversial applications.
Every new “interpretation” used to bend the rules in favour of approving some new overreach sets a precedent that’s used to justify building something else.
Even the island’s world famous UNESCO heritage isn’t immune from this desperate compulsion to pile stones.
Emmanuel Farrugia has applied for permission to build a five-storey block of 31 flats within the buffer zone of the Ġgantija temple complex. In fact, the resulting ‘Ġgantija view’ is one of his sales brochure’s main selling points. The site notice keeps disappearing — perhaps in a bid to escape public scrutiny of a project that’s sure to spark widespread outrage — but the Planning Authority doesn’t seem interested in finding out who keeps taking it down.
Unfortunately, batching plants and residential blocks aren’t the only attempts to blight Gozo with more monstrosities no one needs.
The Shift revealed that an Indian tycoon based in Dubai has set his eyes on a disused quarry in beautiful Dwejra. Vijay Kumar Berlia, the man who wants to turn 30,000 square metres of land in a protected Natura 2000 site into an industrial area, may also be a Maltese citizen. His wife and son bought passports under the cash-for-passports scheme, but it’s unclear whether the paterfamilias has also applied. John Dalli’s email address was listed as the contact on his Planning Authority application form.
Will peaceful Gozo, with its villages and fields, its traditions and silence, go the way of over-paved, overpopulated, overbuilt Malta, where road rage has replaced civility and the taste of car exhaust overpowers the smell of the sea?
Nonstop construction became the reality in every village when Joseph Muscat formed an alliance with the Malta Developers Association. Blocks of flats are being thrown up everywhere, spreading like some creeping limestone impetigo, consuming historic homes and digesting uniqueness. The quality is so poor it looks like they’re erecting ruins.
Excavators perch perilously at the edge of holes or are lifted onto rooftops that can’t possibly support their weight. Plasterers dangle from windows by one hand — or are held by a fat man on a dog leash — and coat a wall with the other.
Cranes are the island’s most common sight — and not the type hunters are so fond of gunning down for fun. They’re a blight on every skyline, second only to the blight of the hodgepodge structures they’re helping knock together.
Activists are fighting rearguard actions as Ian Borg tears up trees to pave roads to nowhere, and tycoons raise mismatched towers in homage to Joseph Muscat’s tawdry Dubai dreams, but one look at Malta shows the battle is mostly lost.
Gozo is now the last bastion of that wonderful, slow-paced Maltese way of life. Summer hours stretched on stones by the shore. The soft splash of water on the side of a luzzu. Grilled fish at a wooden table with friends. Walks in the countryside with the sound of birds. But the siege engines are already in place.
Unfortunately, I think you’re going to find out that Alberta-native Joni Mitchell was right. You don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.