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In the Media

The Times
5th October, 2007

Mepa revokes Ramla permit
Mark Micallef

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority board yesterday unanimously revoked the permit for the contentious Ramla l-Hamra development in a sitting which the developers' lawyer described as "orchestrated".

The tables were turned completely at yesterday's sitting, with environmentalists applauding the decision and the developer's representatives crying foul.

Just four months earlier, after the authority had approved the controversial 23-unit tourist complex development, environmentalists were booing the board members at a protest march in Valletta.

It was the developer's turn yesterday. "It was all orchestrated," lawyer Edward Debono said of the sitting, commenting immediately after the decision. "It was all predetermined."

Asked whether he thought it was a political decision, he simply told the journalist fielding the question: "You decide".

He would not confirm whether an appeal would be filed although during the sitting Dr Debono's colleague, Carmel Galea, insisted that the developers were prepared to fight the matter in court.

The crux of the matter revolved around a tract of land within the site proposed for development which, according to Mepa's lawyers, is government-owned.

The authority does not usually go into the merits of third party rights but in this case one of the conditions tied to the permit was that the developer enters into a public deed with Mepa, binding himself not to sell the villas he planned to build as separate units but to retain the project as a whole.

In light of this fact, Mepa's lawyers have argued that the authority cannot execute the public deed with someone who does not possess the entire property rights over the land earmarked for development.

The developer's lawyers, however, challenged the claim, saying that the entire site was owned by the developer and that Mepa's lawyers were wrongly interpreting the contract of sale through which the developer had bought the property.

Their challenge was weakened somewhat by a revelation made by architect Lino Bianco who, in a report he had filed for the Xaghra local council against the development, had flagged the property ownership issue.

He said he had found in Mepa's records two permits in which the site plans clearly indicated the same stretch of land as being public.

Nonetheless, Dr Debono argued that, even if they conceded that the property was government-owned (which they were not), only three rooms would be built on the land in question, which was largely left as a passage way in the project's design.

"It defeats logic that you're going to block this whole project because of something so negligible," he said, reminding the board that, in invoking article 39A of the development laws (as they did yesterday to revoke the permit), the board had the facility to order amendments to the project's design and did not necessarily need to revoke the permit.

"We can just remove these rooms which happen to be over the land that allegedly belongs to the government," he said.

The authority's lawyer, Ian Stafrace, and Gaia Foundation director Rudolf Ragonesi, a lawyer himself, countered this point saying that the amount of public land being taken up did not really matter in this case. What did was that the authority could not enter into a public deed with the developer as required by the permit conditions.

The developer's lawyers kept insisting that they would be challenging the government's claim of ownership on the contended tract of land and if successful would claim damages, should Mepa revoke their permit without waiting for the outcome.

However, the voting took no time and the nine board members present unanimously agreed to withdraw the permit.

As expected, NGOs at the sitting were in a celebratory mood. The Gaia Foundation and Din L-Art Helwa commended the board for its decision in a joint statement.

Astrid Vella, from Flimkien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar, said she was delighted with the outcome. "This is a huge step forward for civil society, the people spoke and authorities listened. We now hope that this signals a similar fate for the Ta' Cenc and Hondoq ir-Rummien projects."

Copyright The Gaia Foundation © 2007 • All Rights Reserved