Malta Today, 8th June 2008, by James Debono

After the Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando saga, Mistra has returned to haunt the Prime Minister’s green credentials this time with MEPA’s approval of an 11-storey project replacing Mistra Village… a few hours before backtracking on a previous decision to allow a new 23-storey tower in Qui-Si-Sana. JAMES DEBONO tries to unfold MEPA’s intricate web of contradictions on the last day of the end of the Andrew Calleja era

On Thursday the Malta Environment and Planning Authority approved a project deemed to have a major and adverse visual impact on the picturesque Mistra valley, limits of St Paul’s Bay, just a few hours after deeming a 23-storey tower unacceptable in Sliema because of major visual impact.
The contradictory decisions were taken in the last meeting presided by MEPA chairman Andrew Calleja, who had presented his resignation a day before.
The two decisions have only served to reinforce a legacy of the contradictions which Calleja leaves to his successor and his direct superior: the Prime Minister of Malta.
And by calling the Fort Cambridge developer to reduce building heights from 23 to 16 floors MEPA has contradicted its own previous decision to depart from 16 floors envisioned in the development brief, approved by parliament, by issuing an outline permit for 23 floors.
The quandary was further complicated when MEPA waived the developers’ obligation to conduct an Environment Impact Assessment. In the absence of an impact assessment MEPA proceeded to issue an outline permit for the mega development.
Facing a storm of public outrage and pressure from Brussels, MEPA was forced to backtrack on its own decision not to conduct an EIA.
When an EIA was finally conducted the photomontages of the new development not only revealed the massive impact of views from Valletta but also that the development impinged on the Valletta view from Bighi and Kalkara.
Had MEPA conducted the EIA before the outline permit was issued, the issue on the project’s visual impact would have been resolved a year ago.
Yet by only calling an EIA following pressure from Green NGOs, MEPA has set itself in a veritable quandary.
Its back to the same old story where developers are first given the impression of a fast-track treatment only to discover that when the going gets tough and the public starts objecting, their path suddenly finds unexpected obstacles.
Last Thursday’s second consecutive u-turn on Fort Cambridge recalled MEPA’s change of heart on Ramla l-Hamra and Ta’ Cenc.
What was remarkable in the Fort Cambridge case was that while MEPA’s experts were calling for the approval of the project, it was MEPA board member Joe Farrugia who burst the bubble by calling the height of the tower unacceptable.
Conveniently, in news bulletins Farrugia was constantly referred to as “the Prime Minister’s appointee” on the board.
Farrugia’s intervention surely caught everyone by surprise, because before he spoke the meeting was respecting the usual dynamics: angry residents and local councillors clashing with MEPA officials for siding with the developers.
At one time Flimien Ghal Ambjent Ahjar chairperson Astrid Vella even threatened legal action against every individual board member holding them personally responsible for any decision which went against the law.
The reason cited by MEPA officials to shoot down Sliema councillor Michael Briguglio called for a social impact assessment for the project, but MEPA shot it down claiming that it had received six comments when the EIA was issued for public consultation. This excuse was lambasted as ludicrous, on the basis that six responses hardly qualify as a representative sample.
Significantly the MEPA directorate had already shot down the idea of reducing building heights from 23 to 16, arguing that the visual impact was the same.
“The visual impact is negative in both cases,” the case officer declared in the meeting.
He also explained that if building heights were reduced back to 16, as envisioned in the local plan, this would mean that open spaces in the area would be drastically reduced to the detriment of residents living in the surrounding streets.
Yet when it seemed clear that things were going the developers’ way, Farrugia spoke and the board had a change of heart.
It was not a unanimous decision. Three board members voted against a deferral to give time to the developers to submit new plans with reduced heights, while five voted in favour. But only one board member spoke against the motion.
Ironically, as pointed out by the Planning Directorate, MEPA had already approved a 23-storey tower located in the nearby Midi Project, Tigné. The board’s decision opens another quandary for MEPA.
By retaining the same number of apartments and reducing the height of the building, MEPA’s decision could further infuriate residents living in surrounding streets.
So it could be far from the end of the end of the Fort Cambridge saga.
MEPA was not able to think outside the box by reducing the number of apartments to make way for more open spaces while still reducing the height of the mega tower.
MEPA has still to resolve the contradiction of a mega development in Tigné before the Transport Authority approves its own controversial traffic plans for Sliema.
MEPA was arguably more consistent in its approach to the Mistra application. Surely it was true to its former self: an institution with an ingrained bias in favour of mega development projects.
While in the case of Fort Cambridge the EIA was held after an outline permit was issued, the EIA on the Mistra development was held before MEPA took its decision on the preliminary permit.
Following a public outcry against the construction of a 19-storey tower, the latest Environmental Impact Assessment proposed its replacement with a “boomerang shaped” building stepping up from six to 11 and back to six floors.
Still, MEPA ignored the EIA’s conclusion that the project will still have a major impact on views from Mistra bay, despite the reduction in building heights.
While in the Fort Cambridge case the public was regaled with a presentation of photomontages from every possible angle, in the Mistra case, photomontages superimposed on previous plans were shown to the board for only a few seconds.
The environmental impact of the 900-apartment boomerang structure in Mistra is even more pronounced because it impinges on the pristine views from Mistra bay.
The outline permit for this monstrous structure in the relatively unspoilt north also arguably tarnishes Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi’s environmental credentials. By assuming direct responsibility for MEPA, the PM has placed himself in the uncomfortable position of being held accountable for every decision taken by his direct subordinates.
Surely Mistra – which is also associated with a proposed disco set on Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando’s land – is proving to be a veritable minefield for Gonzi’s green aspirations.
“Judge me not by my words but by my actions,” Gonzi said before the election. Ironically, he might now find himself judged by MEPA’s actions.