Times of Malta, 29th June 2008, by Ivan Camilleri

Fresh development plans for the ecologically-sensitive area of Ta’ Ċenċ were handed to EU officials for evaluation during a recent meeting in Brussels between the developers and European Commission, The Sunday Times has learnt.

The proposed project includes the development of villas and farmhouses as well as the creation of a heritage park, according to sources close to the meeting.

When contacted, both the European Commission and Real Finanz AG, owners of the Ta’ Ċenċ area, declined to divulge details about the private meeting.

A Commission spokesman told The Sunday Times: “We can confirm that a trilateral meeting between the owner/developer of the site, the Maltese authorities and the Commission took place in Brussels in the beginning of June intended to facilitate an informal open exchange of views on the environmental attributes of Ta’ Ċenċ and to review the obligations under EU environmental law and have an understanding of the proposed development.”

Asked whether it was normal practice for development plans relating to sensitive areas in the EU to be tackled in this way, the Commission spokesman would only say that “the meeting was an opportunity for all parties to clarify some of the factual details as well as the legal context” of the proposed development.

Sources said that present for the discussion were senior officials from the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and Victor Borg, owner of the Ta’ Ċenċ area.

When contacted, Mr Borg confirmed that the meeting was held at his company’s request but he refused to say what was discussed, or to give any insight into the new plans.

“All parties involved felt it prudent to agree not to make any public statements and thus we are not at liberty to discuss what went on during this meeting for the time being,” he said.

Mr Borg insisted that although he is seeking to develop his land, he also intends to protect the environment.

“Our sole aim is to make sure that this development is done in an environmentally sustainable manner,” Mr Borg insisted.

“We not only want to protect this area but also to enhance it by providing a much needed heritage park in Gozo which will be freely enjoyed by the public, besides serving as a marketing tool to promote the island.”

However, Mr Borg said he also feels duty-bound to boost economic activity and protect jobs.

“We need to safeguard our 200-strong workforce, especially during the winter season, when due to huge operating losses incurred during this period the Ta’ Ċenċ Hotel used to be (temporarily) closed before we took over in 1997.”

The proposed development of Ta’ Ċenċ has been on the drawing board for a number of years, prompting a fierce tug-of-war between environmental organisations and the developer.

According to Birdlife, no further development should be permitted in the area.

It insists that the Maltese authorities should offer more protection to the zone by altering its designation under EU environmental rules from a bird protection area to a special protection area.

If this happens, development possibilities at Ta’ Ċenċ will be further restricted.

To date, the EU executive has been inclined to agree with the environmental lobby on this issue. Last year the government was served with a letter of formal notice – a first warning under EU infringement procedures – for not designating the Ta’ Ċenċ area in its list of most protected sites. According to the Commission’s spokesman, the issue is still under scrutiny:

“The letter of formal notice addressed a number of areas which the Commission considers have been insufficiently designated, including Ta’ Ċenċ.

The Maltese authorities provided information in response to the letter of formal notice, setting out their position with regard to the requests for further designation.

“The Commission is currently assessing this response before being in a position to consider the next step, as appropriate.”