Marsaxlokk hotel could impact on Maghluq wetlands, ERA warns

Environment and Resources Authority demands ecological studies for Marsaxlokk hotel owned by former Labour MP John Dalli

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) says a hotel being proposed on the grounds of the Hunters Tower restaurant at Marsaxlokk requires an environment impact assessment (EIA) due to its location within a Natura 2000 site, which includes the Maghluq coastal wetland. 

Restaurant owner Jon-Jon Dalli wants to demolish the existing restaurant and construct a 125-room hotel on the 4,163 m2 site – which includes the landscaped garden area around the restaurant.

The three-storey hotel includes a 40-space underground car park, outside pool and bar area.

The place is under an enforcement order issued in 1995 against additions to the Hunters Tower restaurant, but is still pending “direct action” by the Planning Authority (PA).

The hotel grounds would border the wetlands, which are granted maximum protection (level 1) while the existing restaurant is located in the buffer zone, which is granted level 3 protection, which normally precludes any major development on site.

The whole area forms part of the Natura 2000 site il-Ballut ta’ Marsaxlokk, under protection by the EU’s Habitats Directive and designated as a Special Area of Conservation and Area of Ecological importance.

This means any development in such an area has to be assessed through an Appropriate Assessment (AA).

Moreover, the ERA’s preliminary report says excavations for the underground car park “are not likely to be feasible” in view of the site’s geological features and its proximity to the wetlands.

The ERA wants Dalli to present a Project Development Statement, on the basis of which a decision will be taken whether to conduct a full EIA.

Since the project “may lead to possible impacts like habitat degradation, changes to the hydrological regime and disturbance through noise and light” the AA will have to be conducted of the EIA.

The ERA has already issued the terms of reference for this study.

A management plan for the Natura 2000 site already proposes extending the existing lagoon into adjacent land. This means an AA from the developers will have to “clearly illustrate” how the lagoon can be extended and safeguarded if the hotel had to be built.

In a separate submission, environmental group Din l-Art Helwa called on the PA not to consider the application, as it is in breach of local plan policies which exclude tourism development in this area.

2012 aerial photo shows Hunters Tower hotel proposal in yellow and scheduling boundary in blue
2012 aerial photo shows Hunters Tower hotel proposal in yellow and scheduling boundary in blue

Labour’s nod for hotel?

However, a development brief for the Marsaxlokk Inner Harbour Area issued for public consultation back in December 2014, does allow for tourism development in this area. Indeed, the government instructed the PA to come up with a plan to facilitate hotel development in this area in September 2013, just six months after being elected to power.

The brief, as yet not approved, says that the PA would “favourably” consider tourism-related uses, including “tourism accommodation” in the Hunters Tower area. But proposals cannot exceed the current two-storey height limitation.

It would have to include a visitor and interpretation centre to cater for the saline marshland, and a soft landscape buffer zone between the hotel and marshland to minimise noise and light pollution.

Back in 1998, former Labour MP John Dalli applied to demolish the Hunters Tower restaurant and construct a three-storey, 93-room hotel. The application was later downscaled to 59 rooms.

The permit was refused because it infringed upon the existing Marsaxlokk Bay Local Plan, which states that the area is identified “for limited tourism-related ancillary facilities such as restaurants” – but not hotels – and because it infringed “the ecological interests of the area” at il-Ballut.

A tribunal chaired by Dr Kevin Aquilina in October 2000 turned down Dalli’s appeal, upholding the view that the traffic generated by the development would impact the adjacent salt marsh.

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