Concerns about protected Għar il-Friefet reignited as planning refusal appealed

An application to demolish and replace a house with a block of flats, previously refused by the Planning Authority for its impact in a geologically sensitive area of Birżebbuġa, is being appealed, reigniting concerns about an underlying cave’s protection.

The developer, Ruben Magro, with architect Elena Borg Costanzi, is seeking to overturn the PA’s decision and construct the apartment block on top of the protected archaeological site of Għar il-Friefet, considered highly sensitive to any development.

In their appeal, launched earlier this month, Borg Costanzi noted the PA’s approval of a nearby, much larger development featuring almost 200 apartments, highlighting the PA’s inconsistent treatment of the geologically sensitive area.

A case officer report from November 2023 refusing the controversial planned development noted that clearance from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) was never provided, despite case studies being a requirement for the area of archaeological importance.

ERA had expressed concerns about the development due to its “encroachment on a large Karstic cave (Għar il-Friefet), which is an important natural heritage and bat habitat, and is also legally protected.”

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.

The application has heightened concerns about the cave’s fragile structure, especially given that another, larger development in the same area, involving significant excavation, was allowed to proceed.

In previous comments to The Shift in 2022, Borg Costanzi had claimed that the proposed development had “taken cognisance of all matters relevant and has allowed for them in our proposed design”.

The Environment and Planning Review Tribunal (EPRT) is now hearing the case, with a committee meeting set for March.

The EPRT is chaired by Joe Borg, himself an employee of the Planning Authority. Borg asked to take unpaid leave from the PA while he chairs the ‘independent’ tribunal reviewing complaints against the same Authority’s decisions. The situation has raised questions about the EPRT’s autonomy.


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