State had no claim to register contested Qala lands, Joint Office says

Qala quarry once earmarked for cruise liner terminal is the subject of ongoing court case between private owners and business group

This land in Qala was listed in a foundation deed from 1675, and was in the process of being registered in the name of the State, but the Joint Office carried out searches indicating that the lands of such a Benefice should have never been included in the Annex 8 list of properties
This land in Qala was listed in a foundation deed from 1675, and was in the process of being registered in the name of the State, but the Joint Office carried out searches indicating that the lands of such a Benefice should have never been included in the Annex 8 list of properties

The landowners of an immense swathe of land in Qala, Gozo and a quarry owner vying for the construction of a cruise-liner terminal, are locked in a court battle over the disputed ownership of the quarry.

Millions are at stake over the lands officially forming part of the Abbazia di Sant’ Antonio delli Navarra, a foundation created in 1675 by the Rabat noblewoman Cosmana Navarra for her male heirs.

Since 1992, the Stagno Navarras had been attempting to wrest control of the lands away from the Church, which according to the foundation’s rules had to administer the Qala land when no male heir was identifiable to take control.

The Maltese Archdiocese was in court right up until 2013 contesting the right of the late Richard Stagno Navarra to be recognised as the ‘rector’ of the Abbazia: Stagno Navarra had then been leasing the land to Berrachimp Ltd, a company also owned by then magistrate

Dennis Montebello; facilitating this process was then magistrate Carol Peralta, who decreed in a 24-hour decision that Stagno Navarra be recognised as the Abbazia’s rector, a decision the Church finally overturned upon appeal in 2013.

But since then, under Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the Maltese Church has recognised a new rector proposed by the Stagno Navarras, the lawyer Peter Valentino, the partner of Magistrate Rachel Montebello, daughter of retired magistrate Dennis Montebello. The latter is a business partner with the Stagno Navarras and Gozo lawyer Carmelo Galea in Carravan, the vehicle used by the Abbazia to transfer its lands to a commercial company.

Indeed, for a total of €200,000, in February 2017 the Maltese Church brokered a deal in which the Abbazia would no longer be bound by certain conditions in the foundation deed that suggested any emphyteutical transfer of land – which is a lease and not a sale – would not require any validation from the Archdiocese.

The €200,000 – paid by the Carravan business partners – are supposed to be used by the Church to fulfil pious acts in the name of Cosmana Navarra, as requested in the Abbazia foundational deed.

And since 2017, the Abbazia has been transferring lands inside the Qala development zone to Carravan – specifically a 23,000sq.m piece of land at Ghar Boffa, for the annual concession of €43,000. Another 28,000sq.m tract at Tas-Sajtun was also transferred on an annual concession of €35,000.

Concurrently, the Planning Authority has green-lit three applications at Ghar Boffa for a row of housing that will include 85 apartments over three storeys, and 78 garages, presented by business associates of Gozitan property entrepreneur Joe Portelli, known for the Mercury House high-rise.

Church-State delisting

Crucial in this saga is one important victory for the landowners, who have refused, so far, to explain how they proved to the Archdiocese, as well as to the Lands Authority, their rightful claim to possession of the Cosmana Navarra bequest.

In 1992, the Church passed on the lands of the Abbazia the so-called ‘Annex 8’, a list of Church lands that had to be registered in the name of the Maltese state under the terms of the agreement with the Holy See that same year.

The laborious process of registration has been ongoing since then.

According to the Joint Office – the Lands Authority entity responsible for the registration of these lands – the Abbazia’s lands should have been excluded from the Annex 8, because it was a “property held by one of the ecclesiastical entities or property subject solely to a pious burthen.”

“When the Joint Office was carrying out its researches on the Abbazia Stagno Navarra, with a view of registering this estate at the Land Registry in the name of government, it transpired that the Abbazia was limitedly entrusted to administer the estate listed under its name,” a spokesperson said.

“The fact that the Abbazia had the administration and not the ownership of the immovable properties in question, rendered the latter properties… as not having formed part of the immovable estate transferred to the State under the 1991 Church-State Agreement.”

Freed of its impending registration in favour of the Maltese government, residents and farmers in Qala have now started receiving letters from the Abbazia, of hiked rents – one farmer claimed he has to pay 30 times the ‘qbiela’ on his four tumuli of land.

The Abbazia’s rector, Peter Valentino, refused to answer a series of detailed questions sent by MaltaToday, insisting that there was “absolutely no public interest as to [the Abbazia’s] dealings.”

He also said that the old rents were from the 18th century and had never been updated since.

“Most of these questions form the subject of civil proceedings pending before the courts, and have been similarly raised by Mario Gatt and his company as a preliminary defence in cases filed against him by the Benefice to stop him and his companies from continuing to usurp property belonging to the private Benefice,” Valentino said – referring to the developers who want to turn the quarry into a cruise liner terminal.

Quarry wars

A major bone of contention is playing out in court between the Abbazia and Gatt Developments, the company occupying one of the two quarries on the Qala coastline, the other being Roads Construction.

Gatt has occupied the quarry since the early 1980s, when he acquired the former company that worked the quarry. Originally, it was the cleric administering the Abbazia’s lands who granted the first company the emphyteusis on the land to cut rock.

In 2003, the Maltese Archdiocese, as the administrator of the Abbazia, unsuccessfully attempted to prove that the land occupied by the Roads Construction quarry was its property. The Gozo courts turned down its bid to evict the quarry operator, because it had failed to prove that the area – known as tal-Wardati – was indeed the property of the Abbazia. Indeed it was only because the cleric administering the land at the time, Fr Saverin Bianco, had “indicated the land with his finger on the map, without consulting any maps” to the Church’s land surveyor.

But when two architects were asked to interpret the borders of this land from a plan included in a contract from 1737, both agreed that the Church’s interpretation of the extent of the Abbazia’s lands had been incorrect. The court declared that the Church had failed to prove its possession of the lands acquired by Roads Construction.

Yet since the Church relinquished its administration of the Abbazia, the private landowners are now seeking the eviction of nearby quarry owner Roads Development.

One email from 2 July 2018, presented in court, indicates that the Abbazia wants Gatt to pay more for its rock-cutting, and has accused the company of having cut rock deeper than it was allowed by previous agreements. “Once we agree on the process [to establish how much Gatt has to pay for the rock-cutting] we will be able to discuss the territorial concession for reasons that go beyond simple rock-cutting.”

The suggestion points at Gatt’s intention to develop a cruise liner terminal, a project that was being handled by a delegate of the Prime Minister – Tony Borg – but which, so far, has not advanced on the government’s agenda. The Abbazia has refused to comment on whether it is interested in developing the quarry “beyond simple rock-cutting”.

The Abbazia is no longer accepting the annual €652 pittance from the emphyteutical grant, and is now seeking Gatt’s eviction.

The Abbazia has also accused Mario Gatt of affecting a transfer of part of his quarry from one of his companies, Salvu Mintoff & Sons, to another of his companies, Gatt Enterprises, and then requesting the land registry to issue him with a title on the land.

“[Gatt] has been for two years requesting an emphyteutical grant on the Benefice’s territory, which includes the part of the quarry abusively transferred to his own company. These negotiations were being held… allegedly in their bid for a contract to build a passenger cruise liner terminal and other real estate. Both sides attempted a mediation on these conditions, which mediation was carried out by Judge emeritus Philip Sciberras,” Peter Valentino said in a court action against Gatt.

In comments to MaltaToday, Valentino described Gatt as an unscrupulous possessor who had used false declarations on public deeds to register as his own the Abbazia property, and that a complaint had been filed with the Commissioner of Police.

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