NEWS | Sunday, 26 August 2007

Two men, two mega projects, one story

James Debono

Both Victor Borg and Angelo Xuereb spent a whole decade discussing with MEPA and paying consultants to prepare piles of reports. Like Xuereb before him, Borg claims that no other part of the island had been subjected to so many reports and studies. Both also claim to have had positive indications from the authorities that their project would be eventually be approved.
One reason why Angelo Xuereb’s golf course proposal was ultimately rejected was because it was deemed to breach the structure plan. The Structure Plan policy relevant to golf courses specifically excluded golf courses from good quality agricultural land like the one in Verdala.

“Development respects the law”: Victor Borg
Borg claims that when MEPA issued the first draft of the Gozo and Comino Local Plan (GCLP) in 2002, Policy GZ-Snat-2 indicated that all proposed development was to be located in the area next to the hotel.
In September 2002 Borg wrote a letter arguing that development should take place in both the existing Hotel Area and on the eastern promontory (Mgarr ix-Xini).
Borg claims that MEPA gave regard to his letter and “amended the explanatory paragraph to indicate that development in Zone 4 (Mgarr ix-Xini) is to be of a low density.”
“This is why I reduced the number of villas in Zone 4 after the Local Plan was approved by the minister.”
Borg contends that Policy GZ-Snat-2 indicates clearly that development can take place at Mgarr ix-Xini as long as this is “low-density.”
“I obeyed these instructions to the letter in my 2007 proposals. Nowwhere in the policy or its explanatory paragraph do the authors of the plan state further development on the eastern promontory will be prohibited.”
Borg also contends that the proposed development is in line with the Structure Plan.
“Structure Plan Policy TOU10 states that the Ta’ Cenc will be developed as a multiownership tourism hotel development as well as a ‘national park’. To this effect a number of submissions and studies have been undertaken in consultation with the MEPA so that the provisions of this policy are implemented.”
Victor Borg claims that when assessing his application before August 2006, MEPA officials could only refer to Structure Plan Policy TOU 10 “and their interpretation of this policy” as the Local Plan was not applicable at the time.
But he also argues that since the Local Plan is based on more detailed knowledge of the Ta’ Cenc area than was available to the authors of the Structure Plan, “the provisions in the Local Plan concerning Ta’ Cenc are far more reliable under the Development Planning Act, than the ones in the Structure Plan.”
Still Borg insists that the Local Plan is compatible with the Structure Plan.
He points out that three weeks after the GCLP was endorsed by the Minister, MEPA itself rejected claims made by Din l-Art Helwa that:
“the recently approved local plan effectively gives the controversial Ta’ Cenc development plan the go ahead despite it running contrary to the Structure Plan.”

Borg could face a similar obstacle. The Structure Plan policy on Ta’ Cenc limits development to the vicinity of the hotel – an hour’s walk from Mgarr ix-Xini, where 38 villas are being now proposed.
Interviewed by MaltaToday in 2005, Angelo Xuereb claimed that he was convinced that his project would be approved when he bought the Verdala hotel.
“When I purchased the Verdala Hotel, I knew that the structure plan had already outlined Rabat as the best place to host a golf course. The government had already issued a tender three times, and four previous studies had confirmed this was the best place,” Xuereb recalled.
But 10 years down the line, his project was shot down by the MEPA board.
“Why wasn’t I told earlier on? MEPA never discouraged me, they just asked me for more studies,” Xuereb afterwards lamented.
It took MEPA five long years to reject Xuereb’s final application, presented in 1999. Xuereb’s first application for a 9-hole golf course was presented in 1994. The entrepreneur from Naxxar claims that it was MEPA which had encouraged him to apply for an 18-hole golf course instead.
Borg’s application is already 11 years old, dating back to 1996. The original idea to develop Ta’Cenc can be traced back to the late 1980s when the green credentials of the PN were at their lowest ebb and Borg was not yet involved in the company.
Back in 1988 it was former Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami himself who appointed a committee to propose development at Ta’Cenc.
The committee proposed 210 villas and bungalows. On 18 April 1990 a letter of intent to allow large scale development in Ta’Cenc was issued by former Minister Michael Falzon. A copy of this letter can now be found in the EIS.
In the letter, a “Mediterranean village comprising of a number of villas, town houses, apartments and shops,” was given the Ministerial blessing.
Yet despite this commitment of approval, the project still depended on “approval of PAPB (MEPA’s predecessor)”, and other government departments.
The same letter also states that “Real Finanz should ensure that the development will accessible to the general public.”
Even a change of government in 1998 did not dampen Borg’s hopes. Labour Minister Karmenu Vella recommended Ta’ Cenc for golf development in 1998.
For the past years the Nationalist government has refused to declare the entire Ta’ Cenc site as a Natura 2000 site, a move which would automatically put an end to the whole saga. By so doing, the government left a door ajar for Victor Borg to keep hoping.
To cap it all, the developers claims that the zoning of the project, including the villas at Mgarr ix-Xini, was carried out following discussions and “understandings” with MEPA.
The developer’s EIS suggests that MEPA officials had endorsed development at Mgarr ix-Xini, when they selected this area as one of the eight management zones of the project – zones designated for heritage or tourism purposes.
A letter sent by Godwin Cassar on 8 August 1996 states that suggests that “the villas (at Mgarr ix-Xini) need to be set back to respect the visual integrity of the edge.”
But the letter adds that the “consideration of these options should not prejudice the final decision taken by the board.”
A letter sent by architect Martin Xuereb on 4 March 2004 refers to a meeting held at MEPA’s offices on 27 February, attended by MEPA officials Stephen Farrugia and Rachel Vella and developers Victor Borg and Saviour Cremona.
The letter refers to the construction of 59 villas at Mgarr ix-Xini adding that this was “in agreement” and considered “acceptable” by MEPA.
The letter also states that a zone earmarked for the development of a golf course or an agro tourism project “accompanied by a fitty (sic) luxury suite hotel and ancillary services,” was postponed to a later stage.
Another letter dated 8 March 2005 refers to the boundaries agreed upon in August 2003, which included the site overlooking Mgarr ix-Xini, and state that after the MEPA Board was shown the proposals “the indications were that the project was broadly speaking in line with the Structure Plan”.
A letter sent by the developers to the planning director back in September 2002 refers to discussions with MEPA in which “understandings” were reached that “tourism development includes the country houses area overlooking Mgarr ix-Xini, a golf course, a heritage park and an additional hotel.”
MEPA dismisses this correspondence as “irrelevant” and insists that it does not portray a full picture of discussions between the two sides. MEPA even went as far as to call on the EIS coordinator to remove reference to these letters from the EIS. Irrespective of whether any understanding was reached or not, one cannot but ask why did MEPA even discuss the construction of villas on a zone which is not in the vicinity of the hotel?
One can only suspect that for a very long time, MEPA, just like the EIS coordinators today, attached a very elastic definition to the word “vicinity”.
In fact the entire project boils down to an interpretation of the Structure Plan’s policies. The Plan clearly limits development to the “vicinity” of the existing hotel. But EIA coordinator Paul Gauci, who is paid by Victor Borg, now claims that Mgarr ix-Xini is in the hotel’s vicinity.
The developers now insist that the proper interpretation is that given by the local plan which states that development should be “limited in the lower part of Mgarr ix-Xini.”
In a 2002 Victor Borg wrote a letter to MEPA objecting to the draft local plan.
Back then, Borg was fully aware that the local plan blocked the most lucrative part of his project: the villas at Mgarr ix-Xini.
Borg described MEPA’s policy “which seeks to limit tourism related development to the eastern flank of the promontory (Mgarr ix-Xini)” as “misdirected”.
“It is assumed that the policy is attempting to limit development to the area around the Ta’Cenc hotel.”
For Borg, “this was not congruent with the understandings we have reached with MEPA.”
The developers now claim the approved local plan simply states that development in this sensitive area “is permissible” as long as it is “limited”.
Surely the local plan which existed in draft form since 2002 has served one purpose: It kept the developers hoping.
In November 2005, the developers presented their plans for a heritage park, a new hotel, 49 villas in the vicinity of the hotel and 58 villas at Mgarr ix-Xini. An agro tourism or golf course project was postponed to Phase 2 of the project.
When the local plan was finally approved by Minister George Pullicino in August 2006, the green lobby rose up in arms, alleging that it paved the way for the Mgarr ix-Xini villas.
It was in reaction to this outcry that – for the first time ever – the government gave a clear indication that Mgarr ix-Xini was out of bounds for the developers.
Minister George Pullicino wrote a letter to the MEPA chairman in September 2006 giving his own interpretation of the local plan, basically that no development should take place in Mgarr ix-Xini.
Pullicino’s late declaration effectively put an end to the ambiguity which characterised the way MEPA treated this application for an entire decade. For the first time in recent history, direct ministerial intervention in the planning process was applauded by the greens and shot down by developers.
The developers were furious. They even threatened to take the minister to court, even if so far they have not lived up to this promise. In the EIS, they go as far as to claim that Pullicino’s declaration last year has no legal weight, as no review of a local plan can be made before two years from the date of approval.
Borg might be justified in his complaint that for the past decade, he has been taken for a ride as he was never explicitly told him that no development cannot take place at Mgarr ix-Xini.
Faced by opposition from an unlikely alliance of environmentalists and the government, Victor Borg reacted by scaling down the number of villas.
Instead of 58 villas at Mgarr ix-Xini, he now proposes 38.
Sensing the smell of defeat, Borg, like Xuereb before him, is starting to assume the role of a misguided victim who is paying the price for being magnanimous.
Speaking last Tuesday, Borg declared:
“The previous owners had proposed 180 town houses, 55 villas, a hotel and apartments... I dropped the town houses and limited the villas to 38, reducing my original proposal by 33 villas, almost as many parliamentarians as we have... Had I given them half a villa each, we would probably not be here today, but I chose otherwise, because it is my right.”
Victor Borg even turned the tables into environmentalists, calling them “greedy” for not wanting any more development at Ta’Cenc. “You are more than greedy... you want it all,” Victor Borg told them.
For Borg, environmentalists seem to suffer from a very peculiar form of greed considering that they are not after any pecuniary gain.
Borg accuses the greens of ingratitude. To fulfil his obligations set by the Structure Plan Borg is also proposing a heritage park on 38 per cent of his land. He boasts of evicting trappers and hunters from his property. So why are the greens not praising him in the same manner as Borg’s employees and family members did during last Tuesday’s public hearing?
Environmentalists suspect that Borg has not shown all his cards yet and that the 38 villas at Mgarr ix-Xini are simply a prelude to more development on a large tract of land called Zone 7 which occupies 24 per cent of Ta’ Cenc. The use of this land is not determined in the current application.
Being closer to the hotel than Mgarr ix-Xini, the developer could easily claim that this area lies in the near vicinity of the existing hotel. If villas are allowed at Mgarr ix-Xini, why not allow them next to a golf course which is even closer to the hotel?
Speaking for Victor Borg, EIA coordinator Paul Gauci said that the developer has not decided yet whether to develop a golf course on this piece of land.
With the Labour Party favouring a stand-alone golf course in Ta’ Cenc, the current application could give Borg the apartments he needs to make a golf course feasible.
“It is known that a golf course is a risky investment,” Mr Gauci said, “which needs to be supported with ancillary commercial activity in order to be viable... The applicant has not decided yet.”
But all this depends on whether MEPA would risk another blunder after Ramla l-Hamra. Surely this time round Minister George Pullicino has taken all the precautions by declaring himself against the Mgarr ix-Xini villas before any such blunder is committed.
It’s hard to imagine the MEPA board giving a different interpretation of the local plan and structure plan from that given by the Environment Minister.
The end result of the twin parallel saga could be two angry developers attacking the government on the eve of a sensitive election.
Only time will tell whether Victor Borg will follow Angelo Xuereb by entering the political minefield. His spiteful jibe at parliamentarians during Tuesday’s meeting could be a hint.

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