Victor Scerri’s €860,000 Bahrija sale an ‘eye-opener’

Environmentalist Astrid Vella says €860,000 sale of Bahrija farmhouse by former PN president should be eye-opener against new Labour policies aimed at facilitating ODZ developments

Had the new MEPA rules been in place when Victor Scerri applied to redevelop the old derelict building in Bahrija, he may well have found it easier to demolish it and rebuild it.
Had the new MEPA rules been in place when Victor Scerri applied to redevelop the old derelict building in Bahrija, he may well have found it easier to demolish it and rebuild it.

The sale of the controversial Bahrija farmhouse belonging to former PN President Victor Scerri for €860,000 was described as an exercise in "pure speculation" by Flimkien ghal-Ambjent Attard coordinator Astrid Vella, who augured that the case serves as an eye-opener for the present administration not to re-open the floodgates for development in the countryside.

"This is a case where a private residence was permitted, a valley damaged, rare biodiversity threatened and blue clay excavated illegally for what turns out to be no more than pure speculation," Vella told MaltaToday.

"I hope the MEPA board members who granted this permit are now fully aware of the results of their irresponsibility... and the outcome of this case makes the present MEPA board ever more conscious of the implications of their decisions."

Vella added that she was "extremely concerned" at the possible impact of a new draft policy on development outside development zones (ODZ) presented by parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon last month.

While FAA supports initiatives aimed at helping the farming community, it is objecting to "the loopholes" that are being included in this policy draft "which will allow more construction in the countryside" as well as increase traffic in these areas.

One of Vella's major concerns on the new policy which permits limited ODZ developments - like new agro-tourism establishments in the countryside and the reconstruction of existing buildings - is that these are too vague and may leave room for "wide interpretations".

The Victor Scerri case study

A MaltaToday analysis reveals that had the new rules been in place when Victor Scerri applied to redevelop the old derelict building in Bahrija, he may well have found it easier to demolish it and rebuild it.

But he would have been unable to get an extension over and above the footprint of the original building - something which Scerri was allowed to do in a permit that was later revoked by MEPA.

Had the new rules been in place, Scerri would have been able to entirely demolish and rebuild the farmhouse without having to resort to a series of piecemeal applications presented by his architect Robert Musumeci, who back then was a Nationalist mayor (and now has moved on to become a paid policy advisor of the new Labour government, on planning).

Scerri would have also been able to excavate underneath the original building to build a basement.

But under the new rules, the development would have been limited to the site of the footprint of the older building, and no extensions would have been allowed, as was allowed in the most controversial of the four permits issued to Scerri, and later revoked by MEPA.

Under the new policies, ODZ buildings cannot be extended on areas enjoying levels 1 and 2 ecological protection, like Bahrija. Limited extensions are allowed in buffer zones to these areas, which enjoy a level 3 protection, as well as on other ODZ parcels that have no particular archeological or ecological importance.

The policies currently in place do not allow the complete demolition and reconstruction of existing farmhouses in ODZ areas, something that is now being changed. But these dwellings can be converted, and this policy opened up somewhat of a grey area, where MEPA was faced with multiple applications from the same applicant to convert existing buildings with the aim of demolishing as much as possible of it as possible: as happened in the Bahrija development.

This conversion can only take place if the building is structurally sound and without any substantial rebuilding, and if rebuilding walls would safeguard the remainder of the building. But it was this ambiguity that led to cases like the Bahrija case, which would later force Scerri's resignation from PN president after after a damning report emerged on the approval of the farmhouse development.

The new planning regime

According to the new rules, permission may be granted for the total reconstruction of an existing ODZ building, provided that the replacement does not exceed the total floor area of the previous building. Agricultural buildings never formerly used as residential units, can also be proposed for a change of use.

And although no redevelopment can take place if the building is not considered as a "ruin" - an argument which may well have been used against Scerri's application - the same policy allows the complete reconstruction of any pre-1967 building, if the replacement is of a high quality rural design and respects the wider context in which it is located.

A full basement may also be permitted but must be limited to the footprint of the existing building. And where no legally-established boundary walls exist around the building set for reconstruction, MEPA may allow the construction of a rubble wall to define the curtilage of the building.

How Scerri got his permit

In 2000 Marthese Said (Victor Scerri's wife) applied for an outline permit for the rehabilitation and extension of an unused residential farmhouse.

The proposal was recommended for refusal as the site was located within an area of archaeological and ecological importance, and within a site where no physical development is allowed. Following a site inspection, the Development Control Commission (DCC) refused the application.

But subsequently a request for a reconsideration was submitted and the Planning Directorate once again called for an outright refusal, for the same reasons. But the DCC issued the permit on condition that the footprint of the building was to remain the same. The application was approved by the DCC in view of submission of evidence that the site was previously used for residential purposes. The outline development permit was issued on 25 September 2002.

In 2002 Said applied for a full development permit for the demolition of the existing building and construction of proposed farmhouse. Once again the application was recommended for refusal because the proposal differed from outline proposal as it called for the total demolition of the farmhouse. But despite the objection, the application was approved by the DCC on condition that the development should entail the rehabilitation and not the complete demolition of the farmhouse.

The permit was issued on 2 May 2003, with conditions clearly stating that "the total external footprint shall not exceed 95 square metres and the total external floor area shall not exceed 134 square metres" and that "demolition shall be kept to a bare minimum and substantial or total rebuilding may result in forfeiture of this development permission".

In 2004, Said applied again for a full development application to delete this condition against the complete demolition of the building. The proposal was recommended for approval on condition that the first part of the condition, relating to the footprint and floor-area not exceeding 95 square metres was retained.

The permit was issued to Said on 11 April 2005 with this condition amended to allow the demolition of the building, while keeping the total external footprint less than 95 square metres and the total external floor area no more than 134 square metres.

Said applied again in 2006 to amend this condition to allow an extension. Architect Robert Musumeci had attempted to delete the condition specifying the maximum permitted footprint and floor area. But the permit was issued with the part of this condition relating to the footprint and floor area, retained.

The proposal was thus recommended for refusal by the case officer, who said the application was in breach of DCC guidance on ODZ developments.

Yet despite all these objections, in September 2007 the DCC approved the project by four votes to one "in view of previous permit and within the area allowed by policy", without stating which policy they referred to.

Although the MEPA auditor, Joseph Falzon, had questioned the legality of all the permits issued for this development, the MEPA board only revoked the last permit which foresaw an extension over and above the footprint of the older building.

There is a clause '9a' in the MEPA Law that clearly states that if false information was provided in an application, then it has to be withdrawn. Send in the buldozers to remove this blight on the Collective maltese Consencience. It should not be allowed to remain.
@gborgos7 I am Lino Bugeja's daughter. Now that my dad is 84, he has passed on his role at Ramblers to a younger person....and if you really want to know, this Victor Scerri acted with great arrogance with respect to my father. And yes, my dad did all he could at the time to halt the building permit. Mr. Victor Scerri's reaction - he tried to ridicule my dad on a radio gborgos7, now you know where Lino Bugeja is.
Oleeeee ole ole Nazzjonnnnalisssstiiiii Nazzjonalisti
Asking for €860,000, for what looks like a large garden shed, is one thing. GETTING €860,000 for it is entirely different.
Dan hu wieħed biss min ħafna skandli li twettqu mill-MEPA ta' dak iz-zmien. Pero nixtieq insemmi skandlu ieħor li twettaq. Persuna li kien jaħdem bħala segretarju ta' Segretarju Parlamentari fil-Ministeru li kien responsabbli mill-MEPA, applika biex jibni zewġ masonetts maġemb id-dar fejn kien joqgħod hu ġo Trejqet San Franġisk, Haz-Zabbar f'zona li hi barra miz-zona tal-izvilupp. Izda dan ma applikax fuq ismu, izda fuq isem it-tifel tiegħu biex ma jagħtix fil-għajn. Imbierka is-sapjenza t'Alla, l-ewwel ħareġ l-outline permit u wara ftit għamel full application li ġiet iġġudikata fi zmien record tant li il-permess inħariġlu fi zmien 58 ġurnata. Mhux hekk biss, izda wara li bniehom, bieħhom u min xtrahom reġa bidel kollox u għamel blokka bini enormi li jikkonsisti anka swimming pool. Sal ġurnata tal-lum, dan il-proġett għadu sejjer. Dan kollu sar, meta persuni li kienu applikaw biex jibdu djarhom fi-triq prinċipali jiġifieri fi triq il-Kapuċċini, it-talba tagħhom ġiet miċħuda.
U le imsieken! Don't put them in the spotlight, less we might just see Gonzi reappear in justification with that false smile of his.
Fejn huma Astrid Vella, Simone Mizzi u Lino Bugeja?