Decision on infamous Bahrija gate postponed to April

The Planning Authority’s planning commission has postponed a decision on an illegal gate blocking access to the Blata tal-Melħ coastal cliffs in Baħrija, to 8 April

The Planning Authority’s planning commission has postponed a decision on an illegal gate blocking access to the Blata tal-Melħ coastal cliffs in Baħrija, to 8 April.

According to the case officer, the application to regularise the illegal gate should be refused as it is in breach of the rural policy which precludes gates blocking pre-1967 footpaths. The gate was also found to be in breach of SPED policies securing public access to the coastline.

But on 25 February the commission chaired by Martin Camilleri agreed to defer this application and asked the PA’s Mapping Unit to provide “a close-up photo of the area” before 1967 and 1978.

This is to verify the existence of the pre-1968 footpath shown in survey maps with aerial photos. The commission also gave architect Robert Musumeci 15 days to address the reasons for refusal given by the case officer.

During the meeting, the architect signalled that the landowners have dropped plans to construct a 1.2m-high rubble wall abutting an existing rural footpath, which would turn the existing footpath in to a corridor.

The board also asked the case officer to assess the latest information, “to clarify whether reasons for refusal have been addressed or otherwise and to prepare conditions accordingly.”

The gate, which is blocking public access to the stretch of coastline south of Ras ir-Raħeb and just off Fomm ir-Riħ Bay, was installed illegally early in 2021.

But the PA was prevented from taking enforcement action after an application to “sanction” the gate was presented by Touchstone Limited, a company owned by Baħrija landowners Eliza Limited, which had acquired the land from the feudal title of the Barony of Baħria.

In August 2021 the developers’ architect Robert Musumeci requested a ‘suspension’ of the application, effectively delaying the processing of the application to after 4 February 2022 when the suspension period expired. A suspension is requested when developers feel they need more time to address the concerns raised by objectors and statutory bodies like the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) during the public consultation process. But no significant changes were made in ‘new’ plans submitted by Musumeci on 1 February.

But in the meantime, the PA could not take any action against the gate as an enforcement notice against it can only be issued when the sanctioning application is rejected.

If the planning commission refutes the application as recommended by the case officer, the owners will have no choice but to remove the illegality or face daily fines of up to €50 a day. At this stage, if the owners fail to remove the illegality, the PA can refer the case to its direct action unit, to remove it at the owners’ expense.

But enforcement can be further delayed if an appeal against refusal is presented by the owners. Moreover owners may also appeal against the enforcement order itself. In some cases, other such appeals have dragged on for years.

This planning loophole delaying enforcement action is the direct result of a decision in 2015 to reintroduce the right for developers to sanction developments in the ODZ, including Natura 2000 sites like the Baħrija coastline. The planning reform of 2012, carried out in the twilight of the Gonzi administration, had removed this right after decades of abuse, but then was reintroduced by a Labour government in its planning reforms in 2015.

The Environment and Resources Authority had objected to the application, calling it objectionable in principle, while the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage warned that the proposed rubble wall would disrupt the relatively open, scenic nature of the area.