MEPA Watch | Sunday, 10 May 2009
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Robert Musumeci says DCC members are not to blame for inconsistent decisions

This week I will focus on six planning cases, all of which had been refused in the past by the Development Control Commission (DCC) at the first instance (technically, when a planning application is referred to the DCC for a decision at first instance, architects can only make verbal submissions before the board at the board’s discretion). Incidentally, a reconsideration was submitted for each and every case by the respective architects following a refusal, with a view to enable a reassessment by the board. Reconsiderations are analysed by the same DCC board. Although, prima facie such a process seems irrational from a technical point of view, since the same body is passing a judgment on its own judgment, one could say that the hearing process would be facilitated at reconsideration stage, since architects could then make verbal submissions without restriction.
During the past week, six reconsideration cases were forwarded to the DCC, all of which have been refused at first decision stage. Nonetheless, in each and every case which I shall be highlighting, the DCC annulled its own first decision and issued a permit for each of the six cases.

Case 1 – Greenhouses at Fiddien, limits of Rabat
The DCC had originally refused the application. The same DCC board approved the permit this week at reconsideration stage, now claiming that the applicant under review tilled over 30 tumoli of land and consequently the greenhouse is considered to be part and parcel of the rural character.

Case 2 – Billboard in Burmarrad
The DCC had originally refused the application in order to control the proliferation of more free-standing billboard structures around Malta and Gozo. The same DCC however reconsidered its stance, now claiming the application is backed by an approval from the Malta Transport Authority. It was also pointed out that the particular site location in Burmarrad is in actual fact already characterized by heavy commercial development.

Case 3 – Canopy in front of Otters Club, Marsalforn
In this case, the DCC had refused the application on the pretext that the proposal ran counter to Policies 11.6 and 15.9 contained in the Policy and Design Guidance 2007, which in effect regulate the way canopies should be installed in front gardens in residential areas. When the case was referred to the DCC through a formal request for reconsideration, the DCC reasoned out that the area in front of the Otters Club overlooking Marsalforn bay cannot be correlated to a front garden, which one typically associates with residential areas! The permit was thus approved.

Case 4 – Sanctioning of a change of use of washrooms to a penthouse
This request was originally turned down by the DCC due to the presence of alleged illegalities on the site where the sanctioning was being proposed. When the file was referred back to the DCC for reconsideration, the Board was convinced that the alleged illegalities did not pertain to the applicant. More so, the identified illegalities could be technically removed by way of an enforcement action irrespective of whether the permit for the change of use was issued or not. Against this background, the DCC revoked its own first decision and approved the permit.

Case 5 – Change of use of semi-basement garage to apartment, Marsalforn
This is also a case where the DCC had originally refused the permit since the site area falls short of active sanitary standards. However evidence of a notarial deed was brought forward by applicant, showing that the semi basement garage under review was already used as a residence prior to the year 1992 – that is during a period when the Structure Plan was not yet in force. In these circumstances, the DCC decided to approve the permit.

Case 6 – Construction of seven penthouses, Birzebbugia
In this case, the DCC had originally refused the application to construct seven penthouses on an airspace overlying an existing block of apartments. When the file was referred back to the DCC following refusal at first decision, the DCC overturned its original decision on the pretext that the height limitations with respect to street level as stipulated in the local plans were being respected.

Robert Musumeci’s observations
The plain truth is that DCC chairmen were cautioned many a time to decline any negotiation with applicants at first instance. They were cautioned by the same people who believe that negotiations should only take place with the Planning Directorate. Yet the Planning Directorate continue to follow the planning policies to the letter without fail. Instead of being urged to secure planning solutions, DCC Boards are directed to proceed with decisions.
However, the very fact that all the above planning decisions could be solved at first instance, with perhaps further consultation with applicant, signifies that applicants are still constrained to sit back for years and obtain a permit which could have been issued time before! It is uncontested, at least from a logical point of view, that such a situation is a source of distress to applicants. This situation calls for urgent attention, especially in a time when the incumbent government has pledged to reform the Authority in line with its own electoral promise to facilitate the planning process. The DCC cannot be blamed for this contemptible state of affairs.
Thankfully, the majority of DCC members are willing to understand the public’s genuine needs. Should the authority reform entail a change in the planning decision structures, it is vital for government to ensure that the newly appointed members to follow the footsteps of those incumbent DCC members who are giving a sterling service to the island despite all the unwarranted furore!


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