16th century ruins to make way for Kercem store

The planning authority has approved the construction of a 40 sq.m agricultural store, surrounded by a rubble wall instead of ruins possibly dated back to the 16th century, at the top of Ta' Ghar Ilma hill in Kercem

Ruins of a structure dating back to the Knights period will be transformed into a 'store' enclosed by a rubble wall and gate
Ruins of a structure dating back to the Knights period will be transformed into a 'store' enclosed by a rubble wall and gate

The Planning Authority has approved the construction of a 40 sq.m agricultural store surrounded by a rubble wall instead of the ruins of a vernacular building, possibly dating back to the 16th century, at the top of Ta’ Ghar Ilma hill in Kercem.

Two previous attempts by owner Lorry Apap to “rebuild” the store had already been refused by the PA in 1994 and 2000. The decision was confirmed on appeal in 2002. But on Wednesday the permit was approved by the PA’s planning commission on the basis of a policy approved in 2014, which allows the reconstruction of pre-1978 structure.

The original building on the site was already described as being in “ruins” in 1967 site plans. Prof. Anthony Bonanno investigated the ‘ruin’ in a report in 2002, where he said the ruins belong to a structure dating back to the Knights’ period – possibly to the sixteenth century, which merits scheduling for its protection. 

The report also refers to the possible existence of a cave underlying the ruin in question and called for the restoration of the structures for the rehabilitation of the area as a heritage trail.

The building has been in ruins for a very long time. In fact a 1968 survey sheet confirms that a “ruin” occupied the same footprint when the survey sheet was drawn up. 

Ruins, which are being transformed into a 'store' at the top of Ta' Ghar Ilma in Kercem
Ruins, which are being transformed into a 'store' at the top of Ta' Ghar Ilma in Kercem

The Superintendence for Cultural Heritage had expressed concern on the proposal, noting that the “the development application is more akin to a new construction covering the same or similar surface area, rather than a re-construction”. 

The SCH was not against reconstruction of the building but only following a detailed restoration method statement aimed at reconstructing the structure as it originally was. 

In view of this, the SCH called for “detailed external and internal drawings of the structure; historical photographs of the structure that are being used to guide the proposed reconstruction works; the methodology for the dismantling and reconstruction of the structure”. 

The SCH did not receive any of the above documentation. In a memo it sent to the PA it insisted that “in the absence of the above documentation the Superintendence cannot assess the proposed reconstruction of the vernacular structure”. 

When asked by MaltaToday a spokesperson for the authority insisted that a detailed Restoration Method Statement was not requested because the structure is in “ruins” and cannot be restored.

 The Authority spokesperson also pointed out that the commission requested that the an extra 6 Judas trees are planted  along the road to mitigate the visual impact. 

The Commission decided to overturn the Planning Directorates recommendation on the grounds  that “the store is clearly visible in the ’78 aerial photo and therefore is compliant with the Rural Policy and Design Guidance 2014 Policy 6.2C(1)”. 

Case officer called for refusal 

The applicant wants to rebuild what was described as “a pre-1967 agricultural store” with an external footprint of 40 sq.m. The proposal also includes the restoration and reconstruction of the old boundary walls surrounding the building and access through a wooden gate. 

The area enclosed by the rubble walls covers 2,000sq.m and will include three Judas trees to minimise the visual impact.

The ruins of the old building are located on the eastern ridge of the plateau of Ghar Ilma in Kercem, designated as an archaeological buffer zone due to remains of structures dating back to the times of the Order of St John – mainly the remains of a detached dwelling situated partly on top and partly below the brow of the Ghar Ilma plateau.

Store plan
Store plan

The 1968 Survey Sheet indicates that a structure (indicated as a ‘ruin’) was present at the time. The new store will retain approximately the same footprint of the ruin and will be constructed in recycled stone and fitted with timber windows.

Although the Environment and Resources Authority did not object to the proposal it did highlight the fact that “the proposed store includes multiple apertures, which is more akin to recreational/urban uses rather than agricultural stores which seek to maximise internal storage space”. 

After repeated objections from the SCH, the architect submitted a letter, which reiterated the reluctance to submit a Restoration Method Statement. 

The letter states that the applicant was ready to comply with the reconstruction methods imposed by the SCH. 

However, no further information was provided. Instead the applicant asked the SCH to provide the information needed. In view of this the case officer recommended the refusal of the application. 

The proposal was deemed to be in conflict with the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development 2015, which seeks the re-appraisal of the value of the character, amenity and distinctiveness of designated areas and sites for their built heritage value.

In addition, according to the case officer the proposed works may lead to an adverse impact on the archaeological remains on site. 

Therefore the proposal also runs counter to Thematic Objective 8.7, which seeks to control activities which might have an impact on areas, buildings, structures, sites, spaces and species with a general presumption against the demolition of scheduled vernacular buildings.

How appeals tribunal had shot down proposal in 2002

In 2002 the Department of Agriculture had confirmed that the applicant was registered as a part-time farmer (with one tumolo of dry land) since 1999, but confirmed that no land was tilled by the applicant in the vicinity of the site.

In an affidavit the applicant claimed that the room had only collapsed 10 years before and that before that it was intact. He claimed that the property had been demolished in an “act of vandalism.” 

But following a site inspection and after examining photographic evidence the board rejected these claims, insisting that the room had been demolished a long time earlier. 

The board referred to a site plan issued in 1976 based on aerial photos taken in 1957, which already referred to the room as a “ruin.”

The board concluded that the reconstruction of the room would have a visual impact as it was located on top of the “Ta’ Ghar Ilma” hill which is visible from various parts of Gozo. 

How two other Kercem ruins were destroyed

The archaeological remains on site are the last of their kind within the area, since two other structures 300m up the road have been obliterated and replaced by modern development through permits PA 380/90 and PA 3173/14.  

The first application involving the extension of an existing building was approved in January 1993. The villa now has a pool and extensive landscaped gardens. 

The second application, which proposed the demolition of existing, ruins and the construction of a massive three storey agricultural store on an 80-m2 footprint was approved in May 2015. A wall and a timber gate enclose the development. Two previous applications to rebuild the ruins had been refused. But a smaller room was approved in 2012.

A villa and a store approved in 1993 and 2015, 300 metres away from site, also approved instead of old ruins
A villa and a store approved in 1993 and 2015, 300 metres away from site, also approved instead of old ruins

The application was approved after the applicant presented a copy of an old map dated 1898 obtained from the Gozo section of the National archives in which indicated that the ruins formed part of a residential settlement before 1898. 

An archaeological report concluded that the ruins probably belonged to peasants who worked the underlying fields.

According to the case officer the proposed interventions were of great concern “since these would include excavation works to create a three storey structure on the ridge edge with the risk of damaging the ridge, while having long, distant views, the resulting development would create a negative visual impact on the ridge”. 

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