Planning application for residential complex in Birżebbugia may pose threat to Għar il-Friefet

Application to build maisonette, garages and overlying residential units near protected cave attracts objection from local council, residents


A planning application proposing the construction of a maisonette with underlying garages and four overlying residential units right next to a protected, scheduled cave in Birżebbugia poses a potential threat to the cave itself.

The application, PA/2177/22, published on 30 March and still awaiting a recommendation from a case officer, was filed by Ruben Magro and architect Elena Borg Costanzi.

The application was flagged by Birżebbugia’s local council as well as residents in the area. In its submission, the local council voiced its “preoccupation that the proposed development could be the cause of damage to Għar il-Friefet”.

The area surrounding the cave, known as a home for bats and a location with particular geological formations, was designated as a site of archaeological and scientific importance and protected by a 15-metre no development buffer. No excavation is supposed to take place near the cave itself.

However, the new application, as can be seen in maps showcasing the surface area of the cave below ground, proposes works which border an area marked as highly sensitive.

Left: Sensitive area of the cave superimposed onto the map.
Right: site map from the Planning Authority’s MapServer.

The new application has exacerbated existing concerns about the cave’s fragile structure given that another, larger development in the same area that was previously reported on by The Shift was recently given the go-ahead to continue after it was temporarily shut down by the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) in February.

In their submission, residents living adjacent to the proposed development objected to the proposal, arguing that given the constraints of the site, “the application should be rejected in principle”.

“The development itself and the excavation required would in all likelihood compromise the stability of the scheduled area, given its very close proximity to the underlying cave and the very structure of the cave itself,” the residents’ objection reads, further adding that residents fear that the work would also compromise the stability of their own residence.

The site, which occupies an area of around 309sqm, has a history of similar development proposals, one of which was previously withdrawn at the request of the applicant.

Concerns similar to those flagged in the latest application were also previously raised by Birżebbugia’s local council in 2020 when a different applicant had sought to build a four-storey block featuring a total of 13 residential units.

Questions have been sent to the architect who filed the latest application to find out what the applicant plans to do to prevent damage to Għar il-Friefet during excavation and construction works.

Site of PA/2177/22 as it stands at present.

“I understand your concerns, and can confirm that there is no basement being excavated within the site. This contrasts with a previous application on site which had been withdrawn by the architect’s office,” Borg Costanzi stated when reached for comment.

“Our office has taken cognizance of all matters relevant, and has allowed for them in our proposed design, whilst awaiting further studies as applicable and when necessary,” the architect added.

According to geologist Peter Gatt, consulted by The Shift, the development’s proximity to the cave means it should be accompanied by geological studies of the cave itself to be carried out in order to assess what condition the cave is in.

“To be clear, geological studies are not the same as geo-technical reports, which are carried out by architects. Architects cannot carry out such an assessment of the natural cave itself, only a geologist can do so,” Gatt said.

While Għar il-Friefet used to be a regular visiting ground for curious explorers in the late nineties, it was eventually closed off to the public following concerns about the cave’s structural stability and its status as a place of ecological significance.

In February, excavation works on a different site near Għar il-Friefet were halted because the developers had failed to officially notify the PA that works had started on the construction of a four-floor development featuring a total of 200 apartments.

Additionally, geo-technical studies on the quality of the rock to be excavated had not been submitted for assessment when works started in February.

Following the applicant’s submission of the required documents later that month, the BCA has now given permission for the works to go ahead, although works have not been restarted since.

While the geo-technical studies submitted by the applicant did analyse the rock to be excavated as well as assessing the potential risk of excavation conducted in the vicinity of three adjacent third-party properties, the report does not mention Għar il-Friefet itself, suggesting that the construction should ideally be overseen by a geologist when works are carried out.

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