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News • September 05 2004

Planning directorate recommends refusal as PM calls for a golf course

Julian Manduca

Of all the decisions the MEPA Board has ever had to face, the one it takes next Thursday will likely go down in history as the most controversial. Whichever way it goes, there will be scenes of misery and jubilation. With the Planning directorate recommending refusal a week after the Prime Minister’s unexpected stand in favour of Golf courses, next Thursday is bound to be closely watched by everyone.
Should the Board approve the proposed golf course for the fields underneath the former Verdala Hotel it will have approved the largest project – the size of Sliema - in terms of land area in the history of planning. Should the Board give the thumbs up, it will be the biggest approval of a project where the applicant, AX Holdings, has no legal title on the land.
It will also be the first golf course approved in Malta’s planning history and Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is on record that he wants two.
September the 9 is a D-Day for both the applicant and the farmers, who have been fretting over the proposed project for at least four years.
Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi is on record stating that “the experts” should decide the sites of the two golf courses he would like to see developed in Malta and if the MEPA Board follows the Prime Minister’s instructions to the letter, they should reject the application because MEPA´s planning directorate, who are the experts, have decided to recommend to the MEPA Board to reject the proposal. The planning directorate has explained in no uncertain terms that, on planning grounds, that the Verdala proposal should be rejected. The reasons for refusal range from objections from planning view, to the size of the development, the environmental, transport, water impacts and also to the suggestion of a business centre on site.
Unknown to those opposing the golf course project, AX Holdings has slipped in an alteration to its application asking for a high rise business centre in Triq il-Rghajja close to the Verdala Hotel. The planning directorate is objecting to the business centre too.
There has been much complaint that MEPA has taken too long to reach a decision, but it remains unclear as how much responsibility for the delay is to be attributed to MEPA and how much to the applicants.
The entire golf course saga has seen years of lobbying in favour of the course by the developers, golfers, some politicians (most notably former tourism minister Michael Refalo), and the Malta Tourism Authority. Those opposing include most of the environment groups, farmers, Church bodies, and other organisations working for social justice.
“Whatever happens on Thursday I will not give up my land. I have sons and grandchildren and it is of them that I am thinking.” These are the words of George Cortis, a farmer who has worked on ‘his’ land at Rabat since he was a young man, like his parents before him. His sentiment was echoed by other farmers who till the land in the area that MaltaToday spoke to. Kola Cassar, who grows fruit and vegetables organically is adamant not to give up the land which includes his family’s farmhouse, and Mario Galea said “the farmers will fight this to the end.”
MaltaToday asked Angelo Xuereb, the man behind the proposed golf course what he would do to take possession of the land, but no reply was forthcoming at the time of going to press.
Former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami had never taken a stand either in favour or against the Verdala proposal, but asked once about the issue, he replied that Malta could not ignore the possibility of a substantial investment from abroad.
That possibility seems remote now as AX Holdings former partners in the project - Regent Hotels International - decided to withdraw last year.
The proposed golf course, it is argued, will attract more high quality tourists and relies heavily on the fact that 44 out of every 1,000 Brits are registered golf players. The Malta Tourism Organisation recently went on record saying additional golf courses in Malta would be beneficial to tourism as they enhanced a destination's tourist offer and competitiveness. The MTA and others favouring more golf courses believe that golfers want to play on a number of courses and choose to go to a golf destination rather than a course. It is suggested that the one course at Marsa is not of international standard and does not provide an interesting a course as the one proposed for Verdala would.
The chosen site is seen as a good one by those in favour of the development because it is close to the Verdala hotel, a hotel which was not financially sustainable in the past and which was purchased by Angelo Xuereb before he proposed the site for golf. Should the golf course be approved it is expected that work on the hotel will be speeded up to be ready to accommodate golfers.

ronically in the early nineties the same Angelo Xuereb had objected to a golf course on the site he so desperately wants.
Writing to the Planning Authority in 1991 as part of the public consultation process for the Structure Plan Angelo Xuereb wrote Golf course near Hotel Verdala is not possible because most of the land is privately owner. The land is arable and should be conserved. The buildings will spoil the environment."
Opponents of the golf course have repeated that the proposal does not conform with planning law. The Structure Plan for the Maltese Islands states: “Any golf courses should be located where: It can be accommodated without adverse environmental impact or loss of good quality agricultural land… Potentially suitable locations are those where positive environmental benefits can be achieved by utilising derelict land or land requiring major environmental improvements.”
The main opponents of the Verdala proposal are organised into a loose grouping known as the Front Kontra l-Golf Kors and collectively have slammed the environment impact studies for: exaggerating or not proving the demand for golf courses and not giving due weight to the social and environmental costs should the project be approved. They also point out that the developer has no legal title to the land, that farmland that is rented to farmers cannot be given to someone else and that the land in question should be used only for social and environmental purposes according to the agreement between the government of Malta and the Vatican.
The environmentalists point out that the proposed golf course will be wasteful of water resources. A letter written by Angelo Xuereb states that the golf course will consume 77,000 cu. metres of water a year, or nearly 17 million gallons and it would appear that while the Water Services Corporation never offered water to the farmers, it is prepared to offer it to golfers and at non-commercial rates.
MEPA’s fifteen Board which is made up of people chosen by the government will have to decide whether the golf course proposal is acceptable on planning issues alone. It should not consider the ownership of the land, the financial viability of the proponent, or the agreement between the Church and state, although the Environmental Impact Assessment did give due consideration to the agreement with the Vatican and no doubt each Board member will have been influenced by what has been said in the media over the years.
Should the permit be given some major hurdles will still lie in the way of the proposal. The Church could object on the basis of the agreement with the State, and so far Church authorities and groups as well as a Commission appointed by the Church have opposed the proposal.
Another thorny issue is the legal one and given that the farmers seen intent on digging in and will not sell their tenancies to Xuereb, it remains unclear how the developer can take possession of the land.
The president of the Progressive Farmers Association told this newspaper that the law clearly protects the farmers since the government cannot take away the tenancy of land which is being tilled to give to third persons. “You cannot deprive the rights of farmers to work the land they till provided that their dues are up to date and they are in conformity with the conditions of their tenancy.”
When MaltaToday asked minister Tonio Borg what the government intended to do should the permit be awarded, the reply was: “We have not made any plans so far, we will wait for the MEPA decision and then decide on what steps to take.”
The decision is expected following a meeting to be held in public at the MEPA offices on Thursday September 9 at 2.30pm.






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