A large slice of land on which a 290-year-old Knights-era fort sits at the easternmost tip of Gozo has been registered by the medieval foundation Beneficcju ta Sant Antonio Delli Navarra as its own, despite evidence to the contrary that emerged in court 18 years ago.
The Shift and Lovin Malta also found that the registration was approved in only nine days, despite the translation of the original contract did not mention any land at all.
The 136,000-square-metre area known as Tal-Vardati is larger than the building and grounds of Mater Dei Hospital. It was registered by lawyer Carmelo Galea in 2017, five months after the Archbishop inexplicably renounced his veto on emphyteutical land transfers that was vested in him by the contract of the foundation.
The foundation, set up in 1675, has since moved under the orbit of control of Galea, retired magistrate Dennis Montebello, and six Stagno Navarra siblings. Its rector, Patrick Valentino, is the partner of Montebello’s daughter – Magistrate Rachel Montebello.
Although the windswept, rugged coastal landscape holds little of interest other than the historical St Anthony’s Battery – the surrounding fields are of low quality, a strip near the coast has been hollowed with quarries – the area has become hotly contested in recent years as a potential location for the development of a yacht marina. It has also been eyed in the past for large-scale touristic development, including a golf course.
The foundation has mounted multiple ongoing court cases against one of the two quarry operators while it has done a deal with the second one, Road Construction Limited. Leased land is under the proviso that the emphyteusis would automatically cease if a development permit for maritime and residential project is granted.
For the land registered, which is untouched by quarrying, Galea claimed ownership for the foundation on the basis of the contract of 1675 establishing the foundation. Yet the translation of the 1675 document he submitted had its first three pages omitted – these were the pages in which all of the foundation’s lands, including Ras il-Cala, were described.
Legal experts told The Shift and Lovin Malta that the omission may amount to a false declaration in a document intended for a public authority.
In the omitted pages, there is a superficial description and sizes given for Ras il-Cala, but Tal-Vardati specifically was only described and sketched decades later in a report by two experts in 1737.
The architectural sketch was analysed by various architectural experts in the court case that was decided 18 years ago. The court case, which ran for five years and included many hundreds of pages of evidence, was mounted by the Archdiocese against one of the quarry operators.
All the five architectural experts appointed by both sides in court concurred that the sketch of 1737 showed that the area belonging to the foundation was much smaller than claimed by the Archdiocese at the time.
As far as the extent of the registration of Tal-Vardati is concerned, a wide strip of land running for hundreds of metres along the coast was not included on the map of lands filed by the Archdiocese in the court case. And none of the experts included it in their reports.
And when it comes to the Knights’ St Anthony’s Battery itself, the architectural experts leant towards an interpretation that had the battery outside foundation lands.
Lino Bianco, the expert who provided the most detailed report, insisted that the battery definitely lay outside the sketch plan of 1737.
The battery is one of a handful of Knights-era coastal batteries that survive. It was designed by the Knights’ resident engineer Mondian and built in 1732. The inscription on top of its doorway holds the coat of arms Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena and the name of Gozo’s governor Paolo Antonio de Viguier.
The NGO Din L-Art Helwa saved it from ruin in an extensive restoration in 2007, which was funded by the Planning Authority and the Qala Local Council.
At the time, the government also registered it at the Land Registry on the strength of a clause in the Land Acquisition Ordinance (superseded by the Government Lands Act in 2017) that permits public purpose acquisition “for the possession and use for such time as the exigencies of the public purpose shall require”.
Sources said that the foundation cannot overturn the government’s registration, yet it put it in its stake by registering the battery “subject to the possession and use for such time as the exigencies of the public purpose shall require in favour of the government”.
Yet its registration covers all the ground around the battery including large parts of the access road and, if it remains unchallenged after the passage of 10 years (in effect, or six years from now), the foundation shall get an absolute title over the land surrounding the battery, in effect controlling access to the battery and the water’s edge.
The foundation has been attempting to consolidate its claims over the larger area with other registrations. These include an attempt to register another large area called Ta Dandalona, up the slope from Tal-Vardati, amounting to 92,750 square metres. In his application, Carmelo Galea referred to the documents he had submitted with his application for Tal-Vardati, including the translation of the 1675 contract of foundation with its first three pages omitted. These are the pages that describe the foundation’s lands.
The national land registrar asked Galea to show where he could find an “indication” of the land registered in the 1675 contract.
Galea responded with an 830-word letter in which he said that, since no complaints had been made in this case and there was no interest in the case by the “sensationalist media”, the “crusade” against the foundation registrations by the Land Registrar was inexplicable. He also accused the registrar of “acting illegally”.
He argued that the lands mentioned in the contract of 1675 were merely those “transferred” to the foundation by the foundress at the time, and that these could expand or shrink over the years. In this context, he wrote, “your query is out of place.”
Then he delved into long-winded exposition about the provenance of Dandalona – which he said refers to the surname of the man who had been leased land by the foundation in 1737 – as well as how the large patch of land had been leased to a new lot of land-holders in 1931 after the expiry of the emphyteusis to Dandalona. He also maintained that Ta Dandalona was part of Tal-Vardati.
He told the Land Registrar that “documentation to prove all of this exists”, adding later that if additional documentation was needed, “you can ask me and I shall serve as far as I can.” Yet he submitted no additional evidence with his letter.
Similar arguments can be found in the file, which runs into many hundreds of pages, decided 18 years ago. At the time, magistrate Paul Coppini said in his judgement that despite presenting many deeds and “voluminous documents”, the Archdiocese, which then handed over the lands to the foundation, did not manage to explain which of those deeds referred to the property contested in the court case and failed to provide definitive evidence of the extent of land it claimed as belonging to the foundation.
In court, 18 years ago, the Archdiocese lost the case. And last year the national Land Registrar rejected Galea’s application for Ta Dandalona, although the registration for Tal-Vardati still stands, approved by the former assistant land registrar in Gozo in August 2017.
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 from Caroline Muscat and Chris Peregin.