Property developer Joseph Portelli and his partners have been carrying out extensive works without development permit on fields that stretch for 350 metres between their large blocks of flats and the cliff’s edge in Sannat, an investigation by this website can reveal.
Near the cliff’s edge, on land that falls in a Natura 2000 protected area, five round structures have sprouted up in the past few months (these were ruined, long-abandoned trapping hides, before construction into the round structures). Some are seven courses high and appear half built, with roofing slabs propped outside them. They appear to be shaping up into corbelled huts.
Other works in the protected area – which ranges from Ta Cenc to Is-Sanap – include extending a dirt road right to the cliff’s edge, and new rubble walls with large-diameter drainage-type plastic pipes embedded in them at regular intervals.
The sheer cliffs just beyond serve as nesting ground for hundreds of pairs of scopoli’s shearwaters and yelkouan shearwaters. They are also home to a colony of yellow-legged gulls.
The shearwaters nest in crevices from May to September and visit the nests in pitch darkness at night. Birdlife International says the nesting birds in these cliffs are under “very high” threat due to various things, including light and noise pollution, as well as “residential and commercial development.”
Natura 2000 areas are a network of EU-level protected areas that are managed, in Malta, by the Environment and Resources Authority.
Development application for stables
The works on the strip of fields, which amount in size to around two and a half football pitches, got underway last September after Excel Investments Limited bought the area from Medland Developments Limited. Excel is owned by Joseph Portelli (the majority shareholder), the Agius brothers (Ta Dirjanu), and Daniel Refalo.
Works on the fields involved doubling the rubble walls in height (and building new ones in some places), with large-diameter drainage-type pipes deeply embedded in the walls, as well as wide tracks for vehicle access fashioned along one side to connect the terraced fields. Parts of some of the fields have been rendered into stony, bare ground with the goings of trucks that delivered rubble stone and heaps of rubble.
An anonymous report was allegedly made to the Planning Authority about these works last September. The person who made the report – whose identity is known to this website – claimed that the authority took no action, a claim that could not be independently verified.
After these works were finished, a man named Marlon Mercieca applied for a development permit to build 4 stables, barn and storeroom, as well as paddock and manure pit and reservoir. These structures amount to a footprint of around 140 square metres, more or less the same footprint of a typical townhouse with small garden.
In the application form, Mercieca declared to be a private individual (not a company) and “an owner of the entire site”.
Yet less than 3 months earlier, Excel had registered its ownership of the entire area at the Land Registry. The ownership registration remains unchanged until now.
Most NGOs and environmentalists missed the application, and the only NGO that objected was Din L-Art Helwa.
The Environment and Resources Authority, a statutory consultee, wrote to the Planning Authority that “this development application is objectionable from an environmental point of view.”
The application is currently being processed.
Wider project put under different names
The three blocks of flats, which amount to 124 flats, have also been put in different, staggered application forms under different names. The Planning Authority has already granted permit for two of the blocks, consisting of 22 and 29 flats. Both of them have pools and grounds outback spilling beyond development boundary.
The third and largest block, consisting of 73 flats, is on this Tuesday’s agenda of the Planning Commission.
Mark Agius, one of Excel’s owners, was the applicant in the first application for 22 flats. Joseph Vella appeared for the adjacent block of 29 flats, while Samuel Saliba appeared for the 73 flats across the 8-metre road. Vella works as a storekeeper and Saliba as an accountant at Ta Dirjanu supermarkets, which are owned by the Agius family.
Saliba and Vella both declared in their respective application forms to be “an owner of the entire site.”
Contacted separately, and asked if they denied or confirmed making a false declaration of ownership, both declined to comment, or to confirm or deny anything.
Making a false declaration “in any document intended” for any public authority “in order to gain any advantage or benefit for himself or others” may be an offence in the criminal code.
Tribunal does not suspend works
The NGO Din L-Art Helwa has appealed against the approval of the two blocks already granted permit. Yet the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal, which hears appeals to Planning Authority decisions, rejected the NGO’s request for a suspension of works until the appeal is decided.
The tribunal justified its decision by asserting that allowing the excavation and eventual construction to go ahead would not cause “disproportional harm” or “be of prejudice” to the appellant. It added that the appellant can also possibly seek other remedies in front of the civil courts.
While the tribunal has rejected the request for suspension of works, it has yet to start hearing the cases on the merits of the appeal.
Meanwhile, construction has gotten underway. The first block granted permit is already half complete, and the rate of progress suggests that the entire block would be completed before the tribunal decides on the appeal.
For the application of the 73 flats yet to be decided, which will be heard by the Planning Commission this Tuesday, more than 300 people wrote to the Planning Authority to object.
The Planning Directorate said that the block does not conform to planning policies “in terms of massing and height.” The case officer also added another point on noncompliance with sanitary regulations, and wrote that the project does not “protect and enhance the character and amenity of urban areas.” The recommendation is for refusal of permit.