True environment watchdogs (letters) -
Martin Galea, executive president, Din l-Art Helwa, Valletta.

Sylvana Debono, the PRO of Mepa, recently made some astounding allegations, attributing ulterior motives to NGOs that protested about the development of a tourist complex at Ramla.

It is totally unacceptable for a public officer, presumably at the behest of her superiors at Mepa, to cast an unfounded and malicious slur on environmental NGOs that are doing nothing more than fight for a better environment. She should immediately retract her statements and stick to factual and informative responses that would allow readers to form a proper opinion on the whole issue of Ramla.

1. It is our contention that to give a permit for the redevelopment of areas at Ramla where there is illegal development, including rooms, sets a dangerous precedent. Will all illegal developments now be able to be subsequently redeveloped or is it a case of two weights and two measures?

2. All of the area is outside the development zone. We were told only a year ago, with the last extension of the development boundaries, that no further development would be undertaken outside the permitted zoning.

3. How does one reconcile redeveloping one structure of 2,600 square metres into 23 bungalows with pools over an area of 8,000 square metres? Under what criteria has this been allowed? Is "disturbed land" a legal basis for granting permits?

4. The granting of over 1,000 square metres of swimming pools goes against Mepa's own policy which only allows 70 square metres of pools for a tourist complex outside the development zone.

Besides these and other issues, there were serious omissions in procedure. Ms Debono takes the NGOs to task for not objecting to the project at the outline stage. In the first instance it is not up to the NGOs to ensure that Mepa applies its own regulations properly. That should come from within.

The development was notified in the press (among the hundreds of two-line applications which come out in a local newspaper) as "Re-development of an existing fully-licensed commercial complex, Triq Ghajn Qamar, l/0 Xaghra". Nothing which would have alerted us to the possibility of such a serious development. Further, as the nature NGOs normally get a copy of the environment impact statement, when this was waived by Mepa we missed another opportunity of being informed.

An unusual twist in procedural terms was when, during the actual planning meeting, the developer was able to change the application from one for residential properties to one for touristic purposes during the meeting, since no permits would be allowed for the former. Quite a considerable change to be taken during a meeting! What was this unseeming haste on the part of Mepa?

The saga of the archaeologists who prepared a report for different purposes and which was then used as a justification for development is yet another step down in this sad story.

Perhaps fundamentally the permit was given in the face of a strong objection (pending further studies into the archaeological remains in the area) by the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage. The Superintendence is tasked with protecting Malta's cultural heritage. One would think that Mepa would at least take heed of what the Superintendence is saying as the expert in such matters. It chose instead to ignore this advice.

Gaia Foundation and Din L-Art Helwa have appealed against this decision. This does not preclude us from stating the facts as we know them. Din l-Art Helwa would like to see a strong and impartial Mepa do its duty in allowing development yet protecting what is left of our environment. Cases like this throw a long shadow of doubt on Mepa and, in our opinion, dents its credibility with serious repercussions on the planning process. This is not what we want.
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26 Jul 2007 by