Landowners ‘stuck’ in ODZ want out, but is there enough public land for compensation?

The government wants to ‘tweak’ development boundaries by increasing private land to be developed and compensating it by putting public land outside development zones. It could become the next pre-electoral bait for votes

An increase in development boundaries announced after the election of the new Labour government may have been put on ice for the time being, but this ongoing ‘tweaking’ of development zones is to be compensated for by redrawing the boundaries of ODZ (outside development zones) elsewhere.

“The net impact would be zero loss of ODZ areas,” so claimed government sources to the The Sunday Times on the effects of this redrawing process.

But sources in MEPA have told MaltaToday that it is extremely unlikely that the planning authority would change the ODZ designation of privately-owned land parcels: otherwise the government would have to compensate owners whose land would lose value if taken out of development zones.

The only option is the re-designation of publicly owned lands, most of which are already protected from development by the local plans, but which were retained in development zones during the rationalisation exercise of 2006.

The promised lands

The government has already excluded a major extension of development zones like that of 2006.

But when asked why the government does not simply retain the boundaries as these are today, former parliamentary secretary Michael Falzon had justified tweaking the 2006 boundaries by accusing the former government of being “creative” in including certain lands, but not others.

Curiously, Falzon’s justification was very similar to that of George Pullicino’s in 2006, who justified the extension as an attempt to rectify anomalies created by the 1988 temporary boundaries.

Falzon’s successor as planning secretary, Deborah Schembri, siad that “it would be premature to comment” on the tweaking.

So this is an indication that the government is under intense pressure by some landowners left out of the 2006 extension, to have their lands included in development zones – a move that would appreciate their land values.

While in January 2013 Joseph Muscat had promised before the election, that ODZ boundaries “won’t be touched”, the tweaking of development boundaries has been on the agenda since the election. In a bid to achieve a zero net loss of ODZ, and therefore not be accused of increasing development zones to appease owners left out of the 2006 extension, the government will have to remove some of its own lands from the development zones.

The government would not lose anything in terms of developable land, and the reason for this is simple: although these lands are within development zones, they are still “safeguarded” from development by other planning policies limiting what actually takes place on these land parcels.

The way forward?

The Strategic Plan for the Environment and Development (SPED) foresees “minor adjustments” to development boundaries “whilst ensuring that the overall result does not constitute a significant change”. 

Therefore the government has already set out a legal basis for the tweaking of boundaries. The question remains: is there enough public land which can be swapped for private land that will be opened up for development? 

One parcel of land which can be easily excluded from the development zone is the Zoqnor point coastal area, which was already “safeguarded” from development in the 2006 local plan. Excluding this land from the 18,000 square metre patch granted to the Sadeen Group for their American University, now making it fully ODZ as part of the nature park at Nwadar, may counter-balance the flak going government’s way. But it is a largely symbolic gesture, since this was a ‘green area’ where development was only limited to public recreational facilities.

It is possible that, as in the case of Mater Dei Hospital, the land earmarked for AUM actually remains ODZ. For example, the land earmarked for the SmartCity project was added to development zones in 2006 but the land on which Mater Dei Hospital was built was not. If AUM is added to development zones, the government will have less land to compensate for development elsewhere.

There are also plenty of other areas which can be easily removed from the development zone. Qawra point is presently safeguarded from development even though it lies development zones, because it is also listed as an Area of Ecological Importance. Mellieha has various safeguarded areas within the development zone – mainly natural areas which happen to be within the urban conurbation. Land around Ta’ Hagrat, for which the government has already paid compensation to owners to stop development around the temples, could also be declared ODZ. Some ODZ parcels added in 2006 belong to government.

A considerable chunk of 2,750 square metres of land in Fekruna, controversially recovered by the Nationalist government on the eve of the general election against compensation for its owners, may now be easily removed from development boundaries. Freed of any obligations to private owners, the land is presently earmarked for a public park, but ironically, it was Fekruna’s inclusion in the development schemes in 1998 and 2006 that inflated its value and translated into millions for its owners.

But is there enough land?

It remains doubtful whether enough publicly-owned ODZ land exists to offset the demands by landowners to have their land included in development schemes.

This may be one of the unofficial reasons why the completion of the new local plans has been postponed to a later date, which is yet to be announced.

According to MEPA, the Local Plan Review process is still ongoing and “considering the scale of the exercise and the complexity of the issues involved, no fixed date has been set for its completion”.

It is doubtful whether the new local plans, which will include the tweaked boundaries and the zoning and height limitations in the various localities, will be in place by the next general election. For the new local plans will effectively re-open a Pandora’s box, resulting in more intense media scrutiny on the beneficiaries of the new local plans.

It could all be attributed to Machiavelli: the promise of inclusion in tweaked boundaries after the next election may be enough to secure the vote and backing of the land owners who may benefit from the ODZ swap.