MEPA ‘politically directed’ not to accept frivolous ODZs
MEPA was given a “political direction” to “strictly monitor” all outside development zone (ODZ) applications and ensure “no more frivolous use of virgin land” will be allowed, according to chairman Austin Walker in his introduction to the planning authority’s annual report.
Unlike previous years, MEPA has not presented its annual report to the press this time.
But no specific directive on ODZs was issued by the Prime Minister, a spokesperson for the Office of the Prime Minister told MaltaToday.
“The Prime Minister stated on various occasions that Government’s policy is
for stronger positions on Outside Development Zone applications,” the government spokesperson said.
The authority faces a backlog of 1,703 ODZ applications, mostly in rural localities like Rabat, Siggiewi and Mellieha, while 15% of all ODZ applications are from Gozo.
In his report Walker made it clear that ODZ applications for infrastructural works or other constructions of national importance will still be considered.
But he said abusive development like “the overnight mushrooming of illegal structures” will be stopped. He also announced steps are being taken to ensure “the interminable process by which one can develop land illegally and then request that this is legalised through sanctioning, is stopped and that illegalities are demolished post haste.”
This promise was first made by former environment minister George Pullicino in 2006.
Walker made reference to “the ever increasing demands” for more supermarkets, petrol stations and schools in ODZ land. “Although each case has to be assessed on its own merits, preservation of our limited open spaces and countryside has to remain our top priority,” Walker said.
As in previous years, MEPA’s annual report includes a report by its own internal auditor Joe Falzon, who lambasted a number of permits issued before the election.
These include permits issued right before the March 2008 election, such as a permit issued on the eve of the election for a villa and swimming pool instead of the pig farm owned by Safi mayor Pietru Pawl Busuttil.
Falzon called the MEPA policy on farm diversification a “recipe for abuse” for allowing developers to convert farm buildings into dwellings on the strength of a document from the director of veterinary services certifying that the building cannot be used for agriculture. MEPA is currently evaluating the auditor’s recommendation to revoke this policy.
“As with all other reports the Auditor publishes the Authority evaluates and takes on board any recommendations it deems sufficiently sound that can improve the operations of its directorates, its policy framework and the decision making process of the MEPA boards,” a spokesperson for the Authority told MaltaToday.
Falzon revealed he is currently investigating the building of another ODZ supermarket by Polidano Brothers in Luqa.
Falzon started his investigation after the original owner of the land complained his requests to develop the same land had been turned down on three occasions by MEPA.
“Subsequently he sold his land to the present developer who had no difficulty to obtain the development permit requested,”
And while MEPA had refused a permit for a car hire garage in 2000 on the same area of the supermarket, six years later it approved the Lidl supermarket constructed by Charles Polidano. The garage’s permit was refused because the site falls within a public safety zone on the approach to the airport’s runway 24.
The Planning Appeals Board later reversed MEPA’s refusal but the permit was never issued by MEPA because the developer did not present new plans as requested by the board.
Despite similar objections by the Civil Aviation Department and the Malta International Airport, Polidano’s supermarket got its approval in 2006.
In another case, Falzon says the owner of an apartment block illegally built an extra floor in 1999, and despite a pending enforcement notice over the past ten years, still sold the illegal apartments.
These were also provided with electricity and water, and Falzon claims the MEPA chairman had told him the authority had no intention to investigative the service providers for providing the supply to the illegal buildings. “No reasons were given for this decision,” Falzon notes.
A MEPA spokesperson told MaltaToday that such an investigation was not within the competence of the Audit Office.
But the Authority has recently requested the Water Services Corporation and Enemalta to remove the water and electricity services provided to a number of illegal buildings in Gozo if they failed to provide evidence of a compliance certificate by MEPA.