Mistra project permit renewal not being assessed by new high-rise policy

Planning rules ban high-rise on ridges, but a 2006 local plan allowing eight-storey development at Mistra is being pushed to overrule the 2014 rules

Although the PA has issued the permit in Mistra, no development has taken place on the site during the past five years
Although the PA has issued the permit in Mistra, no development has taken place on the site during the past five years

The Planning Authority is being asked to renew the controversial permit for a 12-storey tower complex on the former Mistra Ridge.

The PA’s own planning directorate is recommending the renewal of the controversial permit, issued for the construction of 744 residential units, for a decision to be taken tomorrow.

The permit was issued in 2013, and led to the first vocal protests by environmentalists after the election of the new Labour government.

Although the PA is obliged at law to renew any permit when such a request is made within five years, they still have to be assessed according to new policies which came in place after the original permit.

Pertinent to this case is the Floor Area Ratio policy, approved in 2014, and which excludes high-rise development on ridges and which does not include Mistra in the list of localities where over 10-storey buildings are permitted.

The former Mistra village complex
The former Mistra village complex

But in this case, the commitment to use the FAR policy for development of up to eight floors is enshrined in the local plan, which was approved in 2006 and has remained unchanged. The local plan foresees “slight departures” from the 8-storey limit if the “urban and architectural design is of the highest calibre”.

The planning law states that “new plans and policies” are to be taken into account when assessing renewal applications “unless the site subject to the application is already committed by the original development permission in relation to these plans and policies.”

No changes have been made to the project approved in 2013.

The PA’s planning directorate has now recommended approval in view that no changes have been made to the local plan, which includes a site-specific policy foreseeing the application of the FAR mechanism to allow higher buildings in exchange for more open spaces.

The case officer refers to two other policies applicable to the site: the Strategic Plan for the Environment and Planning, which includes generic commitments to protect the Maltese landscape; and the Design Guidelines issued in 2015.

The case officer’s report does not even include any reference to the approval of the policy regulating tall buildings constructed through the FAR mechanism.

Mistra development in breach of FAR policy

The FAR policy as approved in 2014 states clearly that tall buildings should be located “away from ridge edges” and should “not interfere with views of protected areas, such as Special Areas of Conservation and Areas of High Landscape Value “as tall buildings would prejudice the public enjoyment of the open countryside, the coast or setting of urban landmarks of local, national or international importance.”

The proposed development, however, lies on a ridge and is set to impact on views from the surrounding countryside including protected areas.

The massive project includes a total floorspace of 134,600sq.m including a residential complex composed of 744 units, retail (1,800sq.m.) restaurants (990sq.m.), offices (150sq.m.), a spa (1,900sq.m.), pool clubhouse (1,200sq.m) and 1,617 car parking spaces. A total footprint of 28,000sq.m is dedicated to open space with a communal outdoor pool (430sq.m.).

The permit issued in 2013 was valid for five years. This means that if the permit is not renewed it would lose any legal validity. In fact the original permit would have expired on 11 January had the developers not submitted a renewal application.

The Mistra saga

Although the PA has issued the permit in Mistra, no development has taken place on the site during the past five years.

In 2016, Gemxija Crown Ltd – a joint venture between Kuwaiti and Maltese investors – was said to have dropped the project because the necessary funding was not tapped and the foreign partners lost interest in view of developing property market conditions.

Subsequently the law courts upheld a request to suspend the judicial sale by auction of the Mistra Village Holiday Complex amidst a dispute between JPM Brothers and Kuwaiti company Al Massaleh Real Estate Co (AML).

The renewal application was presented by developer Charles Camilleri on behalf of Gemxija Crown Limited. Camilleri is the same developer who has proposed a 13-storey development on the Jerma, another site previously owned by JPM Brothers Ltd. The Jerma development is being proposed by Porto Notos, a company owned by Camilleri and Pierre Lofaro, while the Mistra development is still being proposed by Gemxija Crown Limited, originally a joint venture between Kuwaiti and JPM Brothers.

The development approved in 2013 represented a 20% reduction from the development approved in a preliminary outline permit issued in 2008.

While government insisted that the PA board had its hands tied by the original outline permit, environmentalists insisted that the outline development permit, granted in 2008, was done in the absence of important and relevant information and should have been annulled.

An investigation by architect David Pace – environment and planning officer at the Ombudsman’s office – concluded MEPA was wrong to issue an outline permit in 2008 and continued to make the situation worse when it chose to green-light the full development of the site in 2013.

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