Mepa defends Ramla permit - http://www.timesofmalta.com/
A livid Andrew Calleja, chairman of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority, yesterday sought to defend the authority from the heavy barrage it came under after the granting of a permit last week for a tourist complex overlooking Ramla l-Hamra in Gozo.
Environment NGOs, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the Xaghra local council claimed serious irregularities in the process after Mepa flashed the green light last Wednesday for the building of 23 self-catering villa-style tourist units close to Ulysses Lodge.
During a press conference called to clear the air about the "thwarted facts" on the Ramla l-Hamra case and, most of all, the "misleading allegations" about the Mepa board, Mr Calleja declared a boycott on Flimkien ghal Ambjent Ahjar, the environmental NGO, in reaction to FAA spokesman Astrid Vella's call on Mepa board members to resign.
While not mentioning Ms Vella by name, but clearly referring to her quotes in the press, the chairman challenged FAA to substantiate the allegations or withdraw the claim that Mepa board members had voted in favour without vetting the information supplied by the developers.
FAA has claimed that the development also casts doubts on Mepa's vetting procedures not only in this case, but possibly in others.
Such claims were unfair because Mepa officials had "wasted time" with the FAA to share the information which the NGO had requested, Mr Calleja said.
Asked if a boycott meant FAA would have no access to public information, Mr Calleja said this would not be the case as citizens were entitled to information but said the NGO would not be given "preferential treatment".
A Mepa statement issued later clarified that the "boycott" would mean that no meetings would be held with the group.
Mr Calleja went on to deplore the media's "incredible reportage" of the board meeting when the project was given the go-ahead, saying a campaign of misinformation by the media was undesirable.
Critical of the news coverage on the day of the decision, the chairman said his wife had been so impressed by the news coverage that she chastised him on his getting home and he had to "explain the facts to her".
"Everybody has a right to express an opinion but nobody should twist the facts," Mr Calleja said.
The chairman also criticised the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage saying the Assistant Superintendent of Cultural Heritage had e-mailed him an hour before the meeting on June 6 voicing objections but had not even bothered to turn up to raise his concerns during the meeting.
The Superintendence had the right to issue an emergency conservation order if it feared the permit would negatively impact a heritage site.
Claiming that the process was completely above board, Mr Calleja said confidently he would "definitely step down" if any irregularities emerge.
Authority officials present for the press conference insisted that despite allegations that the development would cover a larger footprint than the present dilapidated site, only the area occupied by the present building would be redeveloped.
Landscaping with mature trees has to be carried out before the actual construction starts while according to the plans, the visual impact of the new buildings would be more curtailed than is the case with the old buildings.
It was contended that the project, lying outside a development zone, would be strictly used for tourism and would not give rise to speculation as the developer would be legally bound not to sell any units individually.
Reporters pointed out that this had been promised in previous projects, such as hotels built on prime sites, which eventually were pulled down and flats built instead only a decade or two after the hotels were built.
Mepa's response was that the Ramla l-Hamra case was "totally different" because any hotels that had been demolished lay "within the scheme".
The FAA said when contacted that the boycott threat was in line with Mepa's present policy to gag its critics.
Asked about Mr Calleja's challenge to substantiate the allegations made by FAA, Ms Vella said the NGO would be able to do so, once it is allowed access to the Mepa file on Ramla l-Hamra as empowered by EU law.
She insisted that the new site was larger than the present derelict buildings, and invited the Mepa chairman to publish the plan of the footprint of the original structure which would reveal that "the outline permit covers much more land than the existing structures".
The FAA spokesman challenged Mr Calleja to make public the developer's project description statement including the report compiled by a group of archaeologists who said the report was inadequate for assessment purposes.
"We further invite the chairman to make public the auditor's report on the processing of the Ramla l-Hamra permit mentioned in the Mepa annual report 2006 which, in all likelihood, highlights serious irregularities in the handling of this case," Ms Vella claimed.
Whereas other applicants need to put in order infringements on their site before a fresh application is processed, this was not the case with the Ramla l-Hamra developers, Ms Vella said.
"In this case, Mepa departed from normal regulations by which the developer should have been obliged to rectify the fact that parking areas at the Ramla l-Hamra site were not covered by permits," she said adding that these merited an explanation from the chairman.
Efforts to contact the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage were unsuccessful.
Mepa insists the permit was granted after a process that was entirely above board, saying that:
• Though the need for an environment impact statement had been waived in line with the law, the necessary studies were available for the authority board to take an informed decision. These included technical drawings, a geo-environmental impact assessment, slope and stability analysis, a geotechnical study of the foundations, ecological appraisal and an archaeological heritage report.
• The project description statement contained a tourism viability study, opportunities and problems, general strategy/production and operational method, proposed timing of the project, surrounding land uses, estimate of employment on site, access arrangements and parking requirements and mitigation measures.
• The various statements that the proposed footprint of the development is much larger than the existing derelict area were false and unfounded. "Certain NGOs" had purposely exaggerated the size of the footprint to give the impression that the impact would be larger than it actually is. The disturbed land, formerly the Ulysses Lodge, constitutes approximately 17 per cent of the total land area owned by the developer.
• The application consists of the redevelopment of an already disturbed land area with some exception on the construction of swimming pools just outside the committed footprint.
• Mepa had carried out proper consultation before approving the development, as the submissions and objections by a number of entities showed.
• Despite the claims by archaeologists that the study of remains did not deal with impacts of any developments in the area, it was an "extensive study" which confirmed that no archaeological features were near Calypso Cave. Mepa confirmed that no terms of reference had been given to the archaeologists who drew up the report for the developer.
• There were no irregularities in the process of the outline development application. The decision was taking place following the approval of the outline development application two years ago, when none of the issues raised recently were raised at the time.
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