NEWS | Sunday, 16 December 2007

How government ceded public foreshore to Otters

James Debono

Otters Waterpolo Club is defending its plans to build a 375 square metre seawater pool on public land in Marsalforn in the face of opposition by both the MEPA case officer and Alternattiva Demokratika. But the controversial plan is only one of a number of questionable developments, including illegal paving and an unauthorised canopy, to have swamped the aquatic sports club in recent years.
In June 2004, the government transferred 597 square metres of the Marsalforn public foreshore to the Otters Waterpolo Club. According to the public deed, which was approved by parliament, the club was not only given a lease over the club house itself, but also over a large swathe of public land on the foreshore in front of the club.
The land was leased to Otters for 49 years against payment of an annual ground rent of Lm 2,000. The club was also given the right to charge money for the use of facilities on the foreshore.
Otters now want to construct a 375 square metre seawater pool adjacent to the waterpolo club on the same public land in Marsalforn.
The case officer’s report calls on MEPA to refuse this development because it would take up coastal area that is currently undeveloped and used for free public access and recreation, thus breaching a number of Structure Plan policies
The case officer claims that the proposal would not only constitute a concession of public space, but would also obstruct the free accessibility along the coast and would create an irreversible damage and adverse impacts to the coast.
But the Otters club has denied that its proposal would affect the foreshore, claiming that the pool is set back from the shore by approximately seven metres.
It also denies the case officer’s claim that the pool will limit access to the public.
“Apart from the fact that the members of the club and all swimming enthusiasts are also rightfully members of the public, the pool deck and the pool are to remain open to all, and one can freely stroll along the foreshore without any obstruction.”
According to the club the area in question is presently occupied by a concrete ramp, a concrete road/parking area, and only a small area of rock surface.
They claim that their proposal does not contemplate enclosing the pitch to members only.
“All this is in stark contrast to the position existing in many waterpolo pitches in Malta which have specific areas which are reserved for members only.”
They also accuse Alternattiva Demokratika, which is opposing the project, of “striking another blow to sports in Gozo,” by opposing this development.
“In Malta, swimmers and waterpolo players enjoy Olympic standard facilities at Tal-Qroqq throughout the year, funded by taxpayers’ money, and are spoilt for choice since there are several other swimming facilities spread all over Malta. We Gozitans have a shortage of sports facilities when compared to our Maltese counterparts.”
Although the application was given the thumbs down by MEPA’s Environmental Directorate, the Development Control Commission recently deferred a decision on this the application calling on the architect to liaise with case officer to explore the possibility of reducing the size of pool or shifting its location.
The first permit for the club was issued in 1993 for the construction of dressing rooms and club facilities for waterpolo.
Eventually, the area in front of the club house was illegally paved and enforcement action was initiated by MEPA.
An application “to reserve the area in front of club house for 10 tables, 10 sun beds and for a temporary serving counter” was submitted in 1996.
The application was originally refused but MEPA’s original decision was reversed by the Appeals Board in 2003.
In the meantime in 2002 the club also applied to sanction the illegally paved area.
Enforcement action was again initiated in August 2006 – against the unauthorised placing of a canopy in front of the club house. An application to sanction the canopy is still pending.

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