Dwejra boathouse saga betrays MEPA’s contradictory policies

20 boathouses regularised in 2008, 17 similar applications rejected in 2010, 2011

This week, the MEPA board rejected four applications to approve illegalities that had already been rejected back in 2010 and 2011, but awkwardly approved the rebuilding of a boathouse that had collapsed – perpetuating a distinction between legal and illegal boathouses that defies any logic.

47 of the 68 boathouses in Dwejra were built illegally after 1968.

In 2005, the Nationalist administration issued an action plan to regularise any illegal boathouse filing for a permit before 2006. Just days before the 2008 elections, MEPA regularised 20 boathouses in the highly sensitive and protected area, a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage status.

Dwejra

Timeline 

April 2005 Approval of Dwejra Action Plan, paving way for the legalisation of illegal boathouses

February 2008 MEPA approves 20 illegal boathouses

April 2010 MEPA rejects permit for 13 illegal boathouses citing “public interest”

July 2011 MEPA rejects permit for four other illegal boathouses

March 2014 Environment and Planning Tribunal for Review orders MEPA to issue a permit for a boathouse rejected in 2010.

September 2014 New policy regulating ODZ development approved. EPTR orders MEPA board to reassess permits refused in 2010 and 2011 according to the new policy

April 2015 MEPA board confirms four refusals from 2010 and 2011 while issuing permits for development on two boathouses approved in 2008

But then in 2010 and 2011, under the stewardship of chairman Austin Walker, the MEPA board rejected 17 similar applications to sanction those boathouses which had not been regularised in 2008.

During the meeting, Walker underlined that a line had to be drawn on sanctioning illegal structures in outside development zones (ODZ), deciding that refusing the applications was in the “public interest and proper planning”.

The owners appealed to the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal, insisting that the boathouses be sanctioned according to the 2005 action plan.

In March 2014, one of the EPRT’s panels – whose members were appointed by the newly-elected Labour administration – concluded that MEPA could not declare that the  proposal runs counter to “public interest and proper planning” without providing supporting arguments. It requested MEPA to issue the permit subject to a planning obligation equivalent to €4,612.

But a month later in April 2014, another EPRT panel – this time, with members appointed by the previous administration – turned down an appeal on one of the rejected boathouse permits, saying that MEPA cannot sanction any development in designated protected areas.

Then came a new policy regulating development inside ODZs, and the EPRT once again passed the buck to the MEPA board, requesting it to decide on whether the 2010-2011 cases of rejected boathouses could be approved under this new policy.

On Thursday, the MEPA board simply decided that the policy did not apply to these four cases, rejected them for the third time.

But now the buck has been passed again to the EPRT, which will re-assess the permit according to other policies – including the action plan approved in 2005, which has never been withdrawn.

Complicating matters is the fact that the board decided to follow a precedent set by the MEPA board back in 2008, to approve the reconstruction of a boathouse that had collapsed: given that it was among the lucky ones to be regularised before the 2008 general election.

In fact, both MEPA’s Environment Protection Directorate and its Natural Heritage Advisory Committee recommended the refusal of this application as the development was located in a protected area. But the Planning Directorate invoked the new policy regulating ODZ development, which allows the reconstruction of structures which had been previously issued with a legally valid permit.

The MEPA board also issued a permit for a boathouse, which was among the bunch approved in 2008, but whose owner never paid the fees required for the permit to be issued. This effectively meant that the boathouse was still an illegal development.

So by approving it the new MEPA board simply confirmed a decision taken before the 2008 general election, effectively retaining the status quo by also recognising decisions it took in 2010 and 2011. 

It will now be the EPRT to take its decision, away from the cameras and reporters.

In the meantime MEPA has not withdrawn the 2005 action plan, which is still invoked to give legitimacy to the boathouses approved in 2008 even if these are in clear breach of other MEPA policies against development in highly protected areas.

Until the policy is scrapped, the Dwejra village will remain divided between owners of the boathouses approved in 2008 and their neighbours whose boathouses were not approved in 2011.

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