The Malta Independent on Sunday, 26 August 2007, by Francesca Vella

Earlier this week teh developers of the proposed project at Ta Cenc publicly announced that they had not excluded the possibility of using part of the land to build Gozo’s first golf course, but acknowledged that this would be “a big risk and would require the support of a network of hotels”.

At a public hearing organised by the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) in Sannat on Tuesday, businessman Victor J. Borg, on behalf of Real Finanz AG, publicly declared that he was still undecided whether to develop part of the privately owned land in the southeastern part of the island into a golf course or dedicate it to agrotourism.

This area, referred to as Zone 7 in MEPA case documents, was excluded from the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), even though the authority’s board is shortly expected to take a decision on whether to give the proposed development the green light or not.

In fact, the environmental non-governmental organisations present at the public hearing expressed concern that Zone 7 was excluded and insisted that the area should be viewed holistically, particularly due to EU commitments to which the country is bound.

The impacts of the possible golf course proposal having been excluded completely; the proposed development has been a whole controversy itself ever since the developers put forward their application way back in 1996.

Among the arguments put forward by Green Party Alternattiva Demokratika (AD) and the enviroment NGOs, was the fundamental idea that the whole area extending from Ta Cenc all the way down to Mgarr ix-Xini – an Outside Development Zone (ODZ) area – is a massive archaeological site, a whole ecological unit and a bird sanctuary of international importance.

Nonetheless, Mr Borg and his supporters, which include the Malta Chamber of Small and Medium Enterprise (GRTU) and the Malta Hotels and Restaurant Association (MHRA) and the Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise, insisted that the proposed development is all in accordance with the law, it will generate employment opportunities and will strengthen the tourism sector.

Moreover, they argued that the proposed Heritage Park, referred to in case documents as “Malta’s first heritage park”, will be a “gift” to the public, who will be able to enjoy the beauty of Ta Cenc for free… with its unique natural habitats, its dolmens, menhirs, cart ruts and ancient troughs.

What is questionable is whether the area will be truly accessible for free and whether plants and archaeological remains will be protected during the construction process.

Moreover, how would developers possibly build a golf course in such an area of ecological and archaeological importance? How would they avoid areas where indigenous plants grow, or where unexcavated remains of an ancient quarry possibly exist?

AD Sannat councillor John Mizzi pointed out that the area designated for the proposed development stands a mere 200 metres away from the dolmens, which are particularly synonymous with Gozo. Mr Mizzi questioned what form of measures would be taken to protect these ancient remains, and others that have not yet been excavated, for the benefit of future generations. However, with the construction and a possible golf course lying right on top of these remains, how could the developers possibly guarantee protection?

The environment NGOs expressed their disappointment that the government did not include Ta Cenc in the list of Natura 2000 sites. Had it been, they argued, the whole project would have fallen through. What is keeping the government? This newspaper contacted the Malta Environment and Rural Affairs Ministry, but is still awaiting its replies.

Interestingly, last October Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi and Minister for Environment and Rural Affairs George Pullicino, had publicly stated that no further development would be allowed in the Mgarr ix-Xini area.

It is yet to be seen, from the ministry’s replies, how far the Mgarr ix-Xini area stretches, whether this includes the Ta Cenc area, and by which criteria Mgarr ix-Xini would qualify as a “no further development zone”. In a similar way, it will be interesting to see how MEPA interprets the meaning of the word “vicinity”.

Environment NGOs, particularly Din l-Art Helwa, put forward questions on how far the proposed development will be from the existing development and whether the word “vicinity” refers to the immediate vicinity or otherwise, as this would affect what has been tagged as the “magical plateau” in a Microsoft Power Point presentation that has recently been circulating by e-mail.