Qala council dropped Ta’ Muxi objection amidst Gozo family pressures

The council withdrew its objection to the application after Nationalist councillor who was leading the opposition to the project found out he was related to the site's owners 

The Qala local council that was elected in 2015
The Qala local council that was elected in 2015

The Qala local council had withdrawn its earlier objection to the construction of a brand new dwelling instead of the small room in Qala, currently embroiled in planning controversy, back in 2016.

Its original objection was apparently withdrawn after a councillor Paul Buttigieg (PN) had cold feet after the owners of the site, to whom he was related, realised he had behind the council’s objection.

The original application was presented by Bernadette Anne Foster, a Sliema resident.

The application was later withdrawn, only to be represented again by owner Mario Agius of the Ta’ Dirjanu supermarket chain, who retained the services of architect Alexander Bigeni.

In January 2019 the land in question was sold for €500,000 to a company owned by Joseph Portelli, the developer behind the Zaha Hadid-designed Mercury House high-rise of St Julian’s.

The Qala council, now led by Labour mayor Paul Buttigieg, has now signalled its opposition to the application, which would turn the 31 sq.m room in Ta’ Muxi into a 200 sq.m villa.

“The council had objected to the application in 2016 when the first application was presented as we usually do in cases involving ODZ development… As a council whenever we make an objection on a particular site we expect this to count as an objection to any subsequent application,” Buttigieg told MaltaToday.

The council also reiterated its “unanimous” commitment to safeguard the environment in Qala and has now appointed lawyer Claire Bonello and architect Carmel Cacopardo to represent the council and take “all necessary procedures” with regards to the application.

But while the council did in fact object to the application on 12 September 2016 by informing the Planning Authority in writing, the council apparently had a change of heart on 2 November 2016, when it wrote back telling the PA it had “no objection” to the development “as long as the building proposed adheres to the Planning Authority’s guidelines.”

At that time the post of mayor was occupied by Clint Camilleri, today the parliamentary secretary for animal welfare.

Local council minutes from 21 October 2016 infer that Camilleri, then a former MEP candidate, had communicated details of the objection filed by Qala council to the interested parties, bringing upon PN councillor Paul Buttigieg, an unfortunate circumstance: Buttigieg was one of the promoters of the original objection, but was unaware that his in-laws were connected to this development.

The PN councillor (not to be confused with his namesake, the present Labour mayor), had proposed writing to the PA informing it that the council was no longer objecting to the project. The reason was that the email between councillors, showing him as one of the three objectors, had been circulated to the promoters of the development. Buttigieg then said he was unaware that the owners were related to him, and that his objection had resulted in “a lot of conflict between families”.

The minutes show that then-mayor Clint Camilleri had interjected in the meeting, admitting he had been approached by persons connected to the development, including architect Alex Bigeni, adding that he “may have said something” even if he was unaware of the family connection.

Camilleri told the councillors that “it was always his opinion that the council should not object to private applications and should only intervene when big projects are proposed.”

Camilleri even “apologized for what had happened”, suggesting that the mayor might have revealed council business to the applicants, to the detriment of PN councillor Paul Buttigieg.

The application of 2016 foresaw the complete demolition of the room and its substitution with an entirely new dwelling. When the application was withdrawn, a new one proposed extending the old room into a larger dwelling.

The PA’s planning commission has declared that it disagreed with the case officer’s recommendation against approval, something that has created a public uproar after strong doubts were cast on the proof of previous residence of the room, based on a death certificate issued in 1921.

The decision was deferred to 1 October after a legal representative for the developer requested a deferral “to scale down the proposed development”.

The Qala local council had taken a strong stance in the past against a number of ODZ developments include a tourist village proposed at Hondoq ir-Rummien. It also successfully opposed the development of a souvenir shop in the Hondoq area.

More in Townscapes