Mepa "very likely" to issue permits for 35 new villas at Ramla l-Hamra -
Environmentalists on red alert
Construction project 50 metres away from Natura 2000 sites
05 June 2007

On Wednesday morning, the Mepa board will be meeting to determine whether or not to issue a full development permit to a Gozitan developer, for the building of 35 villas with pools on the slopes of the picturesque Ramla l-Hamra Bay, right beneath the renowned Calypso Cave.

The development is being presented as a “re-development” of the derelict Ulysses Lodge, which was previously used for wedding parties. Yet, as Mepa’s official map clearly shows, the proposed construction project will be targeting a much wider area of land, reaching down to just 50 metres away from the boundary of two Natura 2000 sites, and from the zone earmarked for the highest degree of protection due to the presence of “unique remains of a Roman villa in unspoilt settings”.

Villas squashed between two protected sites

The land that the developer wants to turn into a villa complex is practically completely surrounded by two Special Areas of Conservation of International Importance (SACs).

Ramla l-Hamra Bay and the Ghajn Barrani slopes are two of 10 areas in Gozo specially selected by the EU to be protected and enhanced through the EU programme Natura 2000. This programme aims to protect Europe’s best natural habitats. The area targeted for villa development lies exactly in the only small parcel of land that somehow was not excluded in the Natura 2000 sites, even if, as recent studies confirm, the biodiversity is just the same as that of the neighbouring protected zones.

In 2006, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority issued an outline development permit for the construction of 21 villas instead of the Ulysses Lodge. Yet, it is clear that the developer’s plans reach out to a much greater area of land. The developer’s applications cover a stretch of land from Calypso Cave right down the slope to just a few metres away from the shore. The Ulysses Lodge is just a building a few metres below the Calypso Cave.

From 21 to 35 villas with pools

The project is being considered as an extensive one. The developers are proposing to build 35 villas with pools and numerous commercial outlets. Mepa’s major projects team is processing the application. Yet, regardless of the environmental sensitivity of the site, and the large extend of the project, Mepa still did not request the developers to carry out a full environmental impact assessment.

Mepa insiders told that when Mepa issued the outline permit, it had taken this decision on the grounds that “the development will take place on the same footprint of an existing building”. Yet, this is surely not the case, as the Ulysses lodge is surely not big enough to accommodate 21 villas, as the developer had proposed in the outline application. To add insult to injury, the full development application has increased the number of villas to 35”.

Last minute notification

Sources close to the environmental NGOs that are opposing the project told that most of the objectors were not informed of the Mepa board meeting. “It was only on Friday that some of us were informed of the board’s intention to discuss the Ramla project on Wednesday at 1100hrs. That meant that many did not manage to fix their work commitments to be able to attend and present their objections to the board. We still cannot understand why Mepa did not notify all those who had sent an objection to the project. That is what Mepa regulations state, and that is what normally happens”.

On Wednesday, the environmental organisations and the Xaghra Local Council are expected to show Mepa that the developer will be destroying natural land in an ecologically highly sensitive area. The Natura 2000 sites adjacent to the proposed construction zone are full of rare species of fauna and endemic plants.

At the same time the site is just 50 metres away from the remains of a Roman Villa, much of which has not yet been fully excavated and studied by archaeologists. An old Roman pathway, and a number of historic caves also lie within the zone targeted by the developer.

Another permit in an ODZ?

Moreover, the whole site is an "outside development zone (ODZ)". In 2006, government has implemented a process to open up new lands for development, supposedly to put an end to developments in green areas. Yet, less than a year later, in Gozo only, Mepa is still working on mega development projects in two major projects in two pristine beaches – Ramla l-Hamra and Hondoq ir-Rummien.

In a statement, the Xaghra Local Council insisted its position that the proposed villa complex is unacceptable. It also noted that a local historian had found out that beneath the Ulysses Lodge, there may be further Roman remains that should be properly studied and preserved.

“The proposed development is substantially larger than the current structures. Wistfully, the Xaghra residents hoped that those structures, built overtop the old Roman Villa, would someday be demolished, never to be replaced again and that the glorious Roman Villa would be properly excavated and exhibited. Hope springs eternal!”
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09 Jun 2007 by