If Marsaskala is a non-starter, where is MEPA's voice on Ta' Cenc?

There has been no “official reply” from the planning authority on a 15-villa proposal at Ta’ Cenc, in the immediate vicinity of a Level 1 conservation and IBA (important bird area)

Ta' Cenc overlooks Mgarr ix-Xini
Ta' Cenc overlooks Mgarr ix-Xini

Labour’s TV newsroom set much store on Tuesday by an interview with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s director for planning, Christopher Borg, who shot down an agritourism complex proposed at Marsaskala as a “non-starter” – citing the level of protection enjoyed by the Munxar fields and the scale of the 2,000 square metre development which exceeds planning limitations.

But there has been no equal “official reply” on a 15-villa proposal at Ta’ Cenc, in the immediate vicinity of a Level 1 conservation and IBA (important bird area) that hosts Malta’s largest breeding colony of Cory’s Shearwater and the only colony of European storm petrels outside Filfla.

With a 118-room extension to the Ta’ Cenc hotel in the pipeline, MEPA however says the planning directorate’s recommendation on Ta’ Cenc will only be public when a case officer assesses the latest proposals.

So what about Borg’s definite ‘no go’ on the Munxar agritourism project? A spokesperson for MEPA said the director’s comments were “a reflection of the content that was included in the screening letter which the planning directorate sent to the applicant” – in reference to the reply that developer Rennie Scicluna got advising him that his development was not in line with MEPA’s rural policy.

Ta’ Cenc hanging in the balance

Like Ta’ Cenc, Marsaskala’s Munxar coast is also a special area of conservation. Scicluna wants eight guest rooms and various hotel amenities, as well as a 300 sq.m farm and 1,260 sq.m of guesthouses, all proposed on the buffer zone to the protected coastal area. He also wants a pontoon at one of the coves.

When the Ta’ Cenc development was first proposed in 1997, MEPA had not yet introduced its screening letter procedure although it has pronounced itself on the project in the past. In 2007 it said the project, larger than what is being proposed today, was unacceptable because it exposed the bird colonies to light and noise pollution, putting the species at risk.

Back in September 2006 MEPA had already ruled out any further development in the lower part of the plateau near Mgarr ix-Xini, where plans for 15 villas were presented this week. Then chairman Andrew Calleja had told the developers that MEPA agreed with environment minister George Pullicino’s interpretation that there could be no further development in the area.  

And in January 2013, MEPA’s environment and planning tribunal turned down Borg’s appeal to contest the official interpretation on the Gozo local plan for Ta’ Cenc. A technicality forced MEPA’s review tribunal to hear the case again, after the law courts said the tribunal’s judgement was invalid.

Hotel still threatens bird colonies

The latest plans reduce the villas overlooking Mgarr ix-Xini from 36 to 15 but includes a 118-room extension to the hotel, to provide luxury suites and a presidential suite for upmarket clients. They will include 21 ‘trullo’ rooms, the traditional buildings in the Italian region of Puglia, as the dominant architectural feature.

But the downsized Ta’ Cenc proposal still threatens bird colonies with light and noise pollution according to its Environment Impact Assessment. “Noise generated by machinery or other man-made (loud music, horns etc.) can result in devastating effects on birds and other biota, such as desertion of colonies,” biologists Sandro Lanfranco, Louis Cassar and John J. Borg warned. 

And tremors propagated through the rock are unlikely to reach the coastal cliffs with “sufficient intensity to disturb nesting birds”.

The developers would have to use “advanced noise-reducing technologies” during construction, and careful scheduling of works to avoid months when these are likely to cause the most disturbances to soften the impact. 

“Shearwaters are so susceptible to light that they do not visit the colonies on moonlit nights,” the biologists said of the light pollution that can deprive the birds of sleep, citing studies showing how breeding sites were deserted when electricity was installed close to colonies.

This already occurred in Xlendi Bay in Gozo and some areas at Hal-Far and Wied Moqbol, and more recently in the upper parts of the Blue Grotto area. 

Using down-lighters, shaded lighting and low-intensity bulbs, and strict limits on light pollutions sources “could go some way” to ensure a minimal impact.

Much of the proposed footprint consists of “derelict agricultural areas” being re-colonised by wild plants. These sites are however situated adjacent to areas with “sensitive receptors of positive conservation significance”, increasing the possibility of degradation of existing habitats from construction spillover. 

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