Zabbar agritourism breached local plan but still got permit

The agritourism policy yardstick was not applied since owner is not a farmer, but the project was approved despite being in breach of the local plan due to its beneficial impact on tourism

james
James Debono
24 March 2017, 9:00am
The Mulberries is a 19-room tourist accommodation which was approved despite being clearly in breach of local plan policies forbidding any take up of 'fresh land'
The Mulberries is a 19-room tourist accommodation which was approved despite being clearly in breach of local plan policies forbidding any take up of 'fresh land'
An agritourism development located outside development zones in Ta’ Mazza in Zabbar, was approved by the Planning Authority board back in September 2016 despite being in breach of both the local plan and even the rural policy guidelines for agritourism.

The Mulberries is a 19-room tourist accommodation which was approved despite being clearly in breach of local plan policies forbidding any take up of “fresh land”. And while the rural policy states that new land can only be used if the proponent is a registered farmer and forms part of a registered partnership with local farmers, no such requirement was imposed in this case.

Asked why this requirement was not imposed as requested by the Planning Directorate, a PA spokesperson simply referred to another condition binding the owner to use the building only for agritourism purposes. 

According to the agreement signed by the PA, the Malta Tourism Authority and the applicant in January, the new building can only be used for agritourism – under pain of demolition if this is not the case.

The project – accessed from Wied ta’ Mazza road on the Marsaskala bypass – consists of a 910 square metre extension to an existing 210 sq.m farmhouse dedicated to tourism accommodation. The proposal includes basement, and ground and first floor levels. 

The project was proposed by architect Aaron Abela, who specialises in the conservation and rehabilitation of historical buildings. 

While the planning directorate’s case officer recommended the Zabbar project for approval, it was explicitly confirmed in the same report that the development would take place in a category 3 rural settlement, where no development can take place beyond the existing footprint.

The local plan policy indeed permits the use of land for tourist accommodation in rural hamlets (policy SMESE 07 and 08) but does not allow the take-up of fresh land – which in this case extends the footprint from 210 sq.m to 910 sq.m.

So the case was referred to the planning directorate’s advisory team, which on its part concluded that: “the benefits to the tourism and agriculture sectors need to be taken into account when assessing the application in relation to the Category 3 rural settlement policies which do not allow the take-up of fresh land”.

Ultimately the case officer recommended approval because the development was considered positively by the Malta Tourism authority, and because the proposed development “integrates well in the area”.

The local plan policy indeed permits the use of land for tourist accommodation in rural hamlets but does not allow the take-up of fresh land
The local plan policy indeed permits the use of land for tourist accommodation in rural hamlets but does not allow the take-up of fresh land
Farming partnership ‘suicidal’

While the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development generically favours projects that facilitate recreational facilities “which enhance the public’s rural experience”, the 2014 rural policy guidelines on agritourism only permit these projects for farmers or members of a farmer entrepreneur partnership company registered with the MFSA.

In this instance, the case officer pointed out that Abela was not a farmer so “the agro-tourism policy does not apply in this case”.

Instead, it was said that the project promoted Maltese culture and tradition in line with MTA policies and that it would “broaden the Maltese tourism product and will create a new destination for a very particular niche of tourism”. 

And yet when the case was taken for a decision by the Planning Authority board, the case officer still insisted that the applicant should enter into a legally-binding farmer-entrepreneur partnership, to ensure that the agritourism project would form part of an established and continuing agricultural enterprise.

Architect Abela disagreed – and said his project was “a very specific project which should be assessed on its own merits” because it had been formulated in 2007 when the Rural Policy and Design Guidance had not yet been in effect.

He said merging the project with a third-party farm operation was suicidal, claiming it would prevent him from securing the necessary bank guarantees. “As business strategy this is a suicide before starting, and to be honest after nearly eight years struggling to get a permit, we cannot commit to the said request.”

Abela insisted he would attract various farming establishments to work with the project, and said he would sign an undertaking stating that the premises shall always be linked to the agricultural activity carried out on site.

He also said he would commit the operation to the production and marketing of “bio-products and jarred foods” – the plans already include a kitchen as the main production area with a farmer’s shop to sell these products.

All PA board members voted for the project, including political party representatives Ryan Callus and Joe Sammut, PA chairperson Vince Cassar and ERA chairman Victor Axiak.

The Mulberries is set to become the first agritourism establishment approved since the approval of the rural policy in 2014. Five applications, two in Gozo and three in Malta, none of which has been approved yet, are presently being assessed under the terms of the rural development policy guidelines approved in 2014. According to these guidelines owners of agricultural land are allowed to construct up to 10 rooms over 400 square metres of floor space. Such a development may only take place on sites occupying 60 tumoli (67,000 square metres).

james
James Debono is MaltaToday's chief reporter on environment, planning and land use issues, ...