Qala country ruins on Portelli land get PA’s blessing to be turned into villa

Deserted ruins on Qala coast will turn into a villa thanks to PA’s rural policy • even former PA boss chipped in: ‘Should we leave it as a ruin without even restoring it?’

The Qala property was purchased by a company owned by construction magnate Joseph Portelli
The Qala property was purchased by a company owned by construction magnate Joseph Portelli

The Planning Authority has approved a controversial permit to redevelop a 31 square-metre countryside ruin into a villa and a swimming pool on the pristine Qala coast, on land sold to construction magnate Joe Portelli.

The latest proposal envisaged an extension of the footprint from 31sqm to 114sqm.

Only PN MP Marthese Portelli, ERA chairman Victor Axiak, NGO representation Annick Bonello, and PA chairman Vince Cassar voted against. Labour MP Clayton Bartolo voted in favour.  Elizabeth Ellul, who had denied accusations of conflict of interest due to her husband's involvement as an architect in an unrelated application presented by Portelli, remained silent through the meeting but voted for the villa's approval. All government appointees who voted for the project also remained silent.

Portelli is a developer whose interests include the Mercury House high-rise in St Julian’s.

The application was assessed according to a controversial planning policy introduced in 2014 which allows the redevelopment of ruins if proof of past residential use is submitted. In this case a death certificate dating back to 1921 was submitted.

The application was taken away from the jurisdiction of the PA’s planning commission after its chairperson, Elizabeth Ellul, indicated her intention to defy the case officer’s recommendation for the permit’s refusal. The planning directorate insisted that since the building was already roofless in 1978, it did not qualify as a past residence. This interpretation was based on a court judgement on another case.

During today’s meeting PA chairman Vince Cassar agreed with this interpretation and he forcefully insisted that the board should abide with this court decision. As PA deputy chairperson, Elizabeth Ellul remained silent.

Architect Alex Bigeni insisted that the 1921 certificate clearly identified the residence as a dwelling of the deceased. But environmentalist and lawyer Claire Bonello disputed this, insisting that it simply referred to a ‘rural house’.

Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg described the case as “clear-cut” and the application as “indefensible”. He also pointed out at other documents clearly showing that the deceased women lived elsewhere.

Lawyer Ian Stafrace, the former CEO of the Planning Authority before 2013, defended the claim made by the developers that the building had been used as a residence. “The property can be linked by legal contracts to the person who died in 1921,” he said, and also disputed the planning directorate’s “selective” interpretation of the policy. He called for consistency, pointing out at a number of approvals granted even after the court sentence. “Should we leave it as a ruin without even restoring it?” 

Labour MP Clayton Bartolo said the photos indicated that the building was a past residence.
But ERA chairman Victor Axiak disputed the entire logic of the 2014 policy. “God forbid that any ruin is turned in to a residence.” But he also pointed out that even within the framework of the existing policy, the permit should have been refused.

After the decision Qala mayor Paul Buttigieg was visibly shocked by the decision and expressed his disappointment describing it as the beginning of the end of Qala.  Together with environmental  NGOs he will be exploring legal avenues to appeal against the  "shocking" decision.

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