Portomaso land reclamation plan endangers protected marine area

Paceville master plan proposes land reclamation for Portomaso’s extension without preliminary studies on danger posed to Posidonia meadows

Photomontage shows development on the Portomaso land reclamation site completely replacing the iconic view of the Dragonara casino when seen from Sliema
Photomontage shows development on the Portomaso land reclamation site completely replacing the iconic view of the Dragonara casino when seen from Sliema

Extensive land reclamation is being proposed in an area already known to be rich in sea grasses that are protected by the European Union’s Habitats Directive and which is adjacent to a marine conservation area.

The proposal is included in the master plan for the Paceville area, which was issued for public consultation by the Planning Authority.

Already in the 1990s the PA had fined Portomaso’s developers Lm50,000 (€120,000) for destroying posidonia meadows following excavations for their yacht marina.

The PA has confirmed that the proposal to expand development at Portomaso through land reclamation was made without any preliminary studies.

The master plan will change planning policies for the area, setting a framework for the nine mega-developments that includes various high-rise towers.

Portomaso is seeking a new footprint of over 38,700 square metres set on mostly reclaimed land, half of which will used for luxury apartments while 44% will be set up apart for hotel accommodation. The remaining area is for office space.

The master plan says this area has a potential for land reclamation because of the relatively shallow sea, and that a sensitive development approach would be required for this site because of its proximity to a marine protected area.

The master plan does not exclude another tower at Portomaso but expressed a preference for coastal development where development may still rise to a maximum of 15 floors.

The PA has told MaltaToday any studies will be now carried out in the Strategic Environment Impact Assessment (SEA), which will assess the environmental impacts of the entire master plan as a whole.

A further Appropriate Assessment (AA) is required when a formal application of the project is presented.

The “detail” of whether apartments are being proposed on the existing rocky coastline or on reclaimed land will be determined when the project is assessed.

This coastal zone happens to be close to the protected Qaliet wetland. Marine biologist Alan Deidun confirmed with MaltaToday that the area has a dense cover of posidonia meadows.

He also recalled that one of the reasons that the PA had turned down the proposed wind farm at Sikka l-Bajda was the presence of posidonia meadows. “If a national project can be stopped because of this important reason, the same should apply to a private project.”

Deidun pointed out that restricting the environmental impact to just the reclaimed area would be “next to impossible” given the exposed nature of the site and the poor track record of the PA’s enforcement.

Back in 2003 the PA had carried out a study to assess sea grasses around the coast, confirming the presence of the dense posidonia meadows in the vicinity.

This “benthic” study said the Qaliet area contained the common ribbon-like seaweed known as dictyopteris polypodioides while “continuous Posidonia oceanica meadows on sand” were found in the vicinity of the proposed reclaimed area.

The PA’s spokesperson said that the area where the land reclamation is being proposed is not protected by any designation, but confirmed that it is adjacent to the marine special area of conservation.

Photomontages published in the proposed master plan also show coastal development at Portomaso completely overshadowing the Dragonara casino when viewed from Sliema.

‘Guidelines’ prevail over PA policy

The Paceville master plan itself claims that the “guidelines” for each of the nine development projects are “based on the high-level constraints and analysis carried out as part of this master planning process”.

It will be the role of the St George’s Regeneration Corporation to ensure that proposals are are aligned to the vision for Paceville as a prime coastal location in Malta. The guidelines, which include land reclamation at Portomaso “will prevail over other existing policies and guidelines”. 

The PA, which has published all the submissions made by the public during the first consultation period, received no written submissions with regard to land reclamation at Portomaso.

Why are posidonia meadows so important?

Posidonia meadows are found in most Maltese coastal areas and are a priority natural habitat under the EU Habitats Directive.

MEPA can only approve a project that is clearly in breach of EU directives in the event that it must be completed for reasons of "overriding public interest".

But if this is the case, Malta will have to inform the European Commission and compensate for the loss of habitat.

A study on land reclamation commissioned by MEPA in 2007 and conducted by British expert consultancy Scott Wilson, had concluded, "land reclamation for the purpose of accommodating inert waste and creating land for development is not of sufficient national importance for the project to go ahead".

This sea grass species, often called 'Neptune Grass' and which inhabits most of the Maltese and Gozitan coastline, is endemic to the Mediterranean Sea and known as the lung of the Mediterranean.

It forms large underwater meadows that are an important part of the ecosystem and is found only in the Mediterranean Sea, where it is in decline, occupying an area of only about 3% of the basin. Posidonia grows best in clean waters, and its presence is a marker of a lack of pollution. Seagrasses are responsible for 12% of the carbon stored in ocean sediments and play a significant role in the regulation of the global carbon cycle. In daylight, Posidonia oceanica meadows help oxygenate coastal waters.

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