Maltatoday, Sunday 22 June 2008, by James Debono

MEPA’s Development Control Commission (DCC) has ignored an earlier controversial decision taken by its predecessor that claimed the development of 43 apartments and an underground car park for 121 cars in one of Balzan’s characteristic private gardens as “compatible with the local plan.”
The board has now called on the case officer to give a “clear interpretation of the policy” before taking any decision on this case.
The previous board had resigned en bloc following a scathing report by MEPA auditor Joe Falzon on an illegal permit issued for the construction of a Lidl supermarket, presented by contractor Charles Polidano in Safi. The same Polidano also submitted the Balzan application.
The case officer is still calling for a refusal of the project because the Central Malta Local Plan precludes the building of new dwelling units in characteristic gardens in the Attard, Lija and Balzan area, clearly stating “MEPA will not consider any development or redevelopment which create new independent residential and non residential units, including garages” in these open space enclaves.
The sole exception is for development that puts dilapidated and unused buildings back into use. But the local plan states clearly that any new buildings should be physically attached to the main existing building.

Dangerous precedent

The previous DCC board’s interpretation of the local plan would have set a precedent allowing for development inside characteristic gardens such as those in Balzan, but also in the Lija, Birkirkara and Attard areas.
The site earmarked for the Balzan development is also subject to an enforcement action, since the back gardens had been cleared of all trees and that part of the same building was demolished. The high garden walls were also breached to allow for the passage of heavy machinery.
Court action was taken by the Environmental Inspectorate for the felling of the scheduled trees. MEPA’s own Heritage Advisory Committee also deemed that the application could not be favourably considered. 
Din L-Art Helwa had also objected, claiming that at least one of the properties dates back to over 300 years ago and had been used by Grand Master De Rohan as his country residence.
The developers intend restoring the existing two buildings, the garden and the dovecot, apart from the villas, apartments, and the 121 underground car spaces. They argue that the project is an opportunity to demonstrate how large unused areas within an urban conservation area (UCA) can be redeveloped to fit into the existing urban setting by respecting the architectural and cultural heritage.