The Planning Authority has deferred a board hearing which was meant to decide on a controversial swimming pool application on a project fronted by Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli’s associates in Xagħra, Gozo, postponing its decision to 2 May while requesting further submissions of plans from the developer’s architect.
The Planning Authority has faced criticism from six environmental NGOs opposing the extension of the project for hearing out the application in spite of the fact that there are specific policies prohibiting such a swimming pool from being built in the Outside Development Zone (ODZ) area bordering a stretch of low-lying natural land in Marsalforn Valley.
Asked to comment on the deferral, Moviment Graffitti activist Andre’ Callus described it as “very frustrating when considering that this application should have been refused outright in the first meeting of the Planning Commission”.
“It had been recommended for refusal by the PA’s case officer, and the same case officer has confirmed this recommendation for refusal a second time following the Planning Commission’s inexplicable decision to allow the architect to make some amendments,” he added.
Callus also referred to yet another Portelli-linked development permit which adjoins four other applications amounting to a massive, 150-apartment block in Sannat, arguing that deferrals “are often a dirty trick that allows developers to get their way in what should have been clear-cut cases of refusal”.
“This case concerns the building of an ODZ swimming pool, literally inside a natural valley. The fact that we are still discussing this application is bewildering,” he added.
Images sent to The Shift (featured photo) earlier this week show that the first stage of the building of the main block of the residential development, which involves two planning applications, is almost complete. The application to build the swimming pool extension was filed last year by Jessica Agius, the partner of Portelli’s business associate Mark Agius.
The swimming pool area would include landscaping and a surrounding rubble wall, amounting to a total 1,645sqm extension to an approved 24-apartment block in Triq Marsalforn.
In November last year, when the swimming pool application (PA/7509/21) was filed, The Shift highlighted that the latest extension to the project known as ‘The Valley’ was separate from the original application to develop the seven-storey project (PA/9803/18).
While the original application had dipped under everyone’s radar and was quietly approved with little scrutiny, eluding even an actual assessment of the project from the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA), the swimming pool extension faces significant opposition from hundreds of objectors.
The extension was objected to by six environmental NGOs, Xagħra’s local council and concerned citizens alike, with both the case officer and ERA recommending a refusal of the project.
The same eNGOs who filed official objections voiced concerns on Monday about the possibility of the Planning Authority’s Commission nonetheless approving the swimming pool extension, given Portelli’s observable influence on the planning process and the consistent flouting of its rules on his projects.
“The swimming pool at the side of the valley is not only destructive in its own right; being situated in the lush valley, it would also set a precedent that would be disastrous, as it would give other developments along the ridge grounds for swimming pool permits,” the statement shared on social media by the eNGOs reads.
The history of the development as a whole, including both the approved development and the illegally-built pool deck, shows that the site once simply consisted of an abandoned room on the side of the road. The residential block that replaced that room lies on the edge of a ridge dense with low-lying vegetation.
Xagħra’s local council had previously pointed out development control regulations which state that for developments in such areas, distance must be kept from the edge of a ridge to preserve the area’s sensitivity.
Portelli’s habit of developing first and then dealing with planning permits later had already been demonstrated in Qala when the developer applied for permission to sanction illegal ODZ excavation works that formed part of a massive, legally questionable project.
The works, which at the time they were last reported in November of last year were halted by the Planning Authority, formed part of a project spanning a total of five planning applications amounting to a gigantic 164 apartment block in a quaint, residential area. The application to sanction the illegal works in Qala is still awaiting a recommendation from the case officer overseeing it.
There have also been documented instances in which Portelli’s projects were approved despite the fact that apartment units were being marketed before a development permit application was even filed, as reported by The Shift on 9 April in relation to two developments in Qrendi.
The architect filing both applications on behalf of Portelli’s company is Maria Schembri Grima, the chairperson of the Building and Construction Authority, an entity which is meant to regulate the construction sector but is instead chaired by an architect working with one of Malta’s most bullish developers.
On Tuesday, the PA approved one of the two development permit applications in Qrendi, giving Portelli the greenlight to build eight garages, 11 apartments, two penthouses and pools on undeveloped land in a quiet residential area.
The larger of the two development permits is yet to be decided upon, and is scheduled for a hearing on 6 May. Should that permit also be granted, Portelli’s company would be allowed to build an additional 50 garages and 56 residential units complete with a jacuzzi and swimming pools.