NEWS | Sunday, 07 October 2007

Election overshadows MEPA’s dramatic Ramla u-turn

In his analysis of last Thursday’s MEPA decision to revoke the Ramla l-Hamra permit, JAMES DEBONO asks whether it was really the public ownership of a small passage of land or an “electoral impact assessment” which determined MEPA’s dec ision to revoke the controversial Ramla l-Hamra permit

We will never know whether anyone ever conducted an ‘electoral’ impact assessment before MEPA revoked the Ramla Bay permit. Perhaps there was never any need for it. Everybody knew Ramla l-Hamra was an electoral liability dipping the government’s green credentials to an all time low.
Surely we do know that just two years ago MEPA had waived an environmental impact assessment for the development of the 23 villas overlooking the picturesque Ramla l-Hamra.
But this most controversial and debatable quirk was not the reason why the permit was revoked.
And neither did MEPA revoke the permit because only 34% of the present Ulysses Lodge site is covered by development permits for tearooms, granted in the 1970s. Nor did it revoke it because of the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage’s concerns, or because back in 1994 it had already decided to turn down the development of one single villa citing “unacceptable urban development”.
Because had the developer restrained himself to 21 villas instead of the 23 he applied for, keeping a public passageway free of development, MEPA would never have found its convenient exit strategy from the quandary it found itself in after approving the permit.
It does not even matter that this small passageway, the sole reason why the developer of Ramla l-Hamra has lost his development application, barely occupies just 1.5% of the entire site, as claimed by the developers. Size does not matter.
The authority’s lawyer Ian Stafrace, insists the amount of public land being taken up does not matter. What matters is that the authority cannot enter into a public deed with the developer as required by the permit conditions.
And just to award itself the aura of infallibility, MEPA absconded itself from saying “mea culpa” by invoking the infamous Article 39A from the Development Act – which renders applications null if false information is submitted. With one legal back-flip, MEPA placed the onus on the Ramla developer by accusing him of submitting false information when stating that Ulysses Lodge Company Ltd was the sole owner of the site in question.
It was only thanks to the site plan submitted by the Lands Department in 2002, which showed a small passage of land passing through the development had been public land, which saved the day for MEPA, the government, and of course, the environment.
Because MEPA never gives a hoot, a monkey’s, or a damn about land ownership. Many were the applicants who applied with the authority for their private projects to be developed on government and privately-owned land as was the case of the Verdala golf course development. Entire developments like the Solemar hotel were illegally built on public land and MEPA was all too willing to sanction them later on in the day, inflicting a pecuniary fine just to even things out.
Yet this time round, MEPA imposed a novel condition on the developer to enter into a public deed with the authority, binding him not to sell the villas he planned to build as separate units but to retain the project as an entire whole – a safeguard against speculation.
MEPA’s lawyers convincingly argued the authority could not execute this public deed any longer with someone who does not have sole ownership over the land in question. Serendipity indeed.
But judging by MEPA’s track record, the arguments presented by the developers’ lawyers cannot be easily dismissed. Lawyer Edward Debono argued that, even if they had to concede that the passageway was government-owned, only three rooms in two of the villas would be built on the land in question.
“It defeats logic that you’re going to block this whole project because of something so minimal,” he said, reminding the board that in invoking Article 39A, the board had the faculty of ordering amendments to the project’s design – and not necessarily revoke the permit.
“We can just remove these rooms which happen to be over the land that allegedly belongs to the government,” he said.
Article 39A of the Development Planning Act gives MEPA the power, in case of fraud, error on the face of the record or an issue of public safety, to withdraw or modify a permit which has been approved. It has to give the reasons for its decision and this raises the crucial question of why MEPA decided to revoke the permit, rather than tinker with the project design to clear the development over public land.
Had it demanded the removal of the two villas from the permit, the “sole ownership” of the project would have been retained and a project twice endorsed by the MEPA board would have proceeded – although such a decision would have only further infuriated an aggrieved civil society which would not have expected anything except the revocation of the permit.
Contacted by MaltaToday, MEPA’s PRO Sylvana Debono acknowledged that in one particular case MEPA had decided to amend a permit instead of revoking it completely. “Up to now there was only one case where MEPA decided to modify the permit under this section of the law. All other cases referred to the Board under this section resulted in revocation of permit,” Sylvana Debono said.
The case in question is a development in St Anne Square in Sliema. But Debono claims that in this case it was impossible for MEPA to amend plans. “In this particular case the modification was not possible because the provisions of Section 39A cannot be used to bypass the development application process as dictated by law,” MEPA told MaltaToday.
Surely MEPA has lost all enthusiasm to defend developments which tarnish the government’s green credentials. Yet just three months ago, it had even dedicated one of its quarterly information leaflets distributed in every house to defend the controversial permit at Ramla.
Now MEPA denies it had ever embarked on a campaign to defend the permit. “Besides its usual information outlets it took out two information banners on two websites. The cost of these was Lm881.46,” Debono said. Surely last Thursday’s MEPA board session saw a veritable reversal of roles, with environmentalists singing the same song as their usual adversaries the MEPA chairman and board, while the developers’ lawyers claimed the sitting was orchestrated against them.
Environmentalists who usually cry foul of political interference when MEPA is perceived to be pro-development chose to enjoy their day of triumph without cringing at the prospect that they were also party to the last act of the Nationalist government’s green redemption of sorts.
Asked by MaltaToday whether the MEPA board’s decision was a political one, lawyer Edward Debono crisply replied: “you decide”. He also described the decision as “orchestrated” and “pre-determined”.
It was the same sensation environmentalists felt just 4 months ago, when the same board approved the Ramla l-Hamra permit. A victory of sorts for the green lobby. But a decision which has only confirmed the confusion at the heart of Malta’s environmental and planning authority.

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