Carpark in Carmelite convent approved despite Order’s objection

Commission chairperson Elizabeth Ellul votes against the Balluta development but is outvoted by the two other commission members

The outline permit was approved on the strength of a lease agreement that the developer had reached with the Order's previous prior, who is his brother
The outline permit was approved on the strength of a lease agreement that the developer had reached with the Order's previous prior, who is his brother

The Planning Authority has approved an underground car park in the Carmelite convent grounds at Balluta despite an unequivocal objection by the Carmelite Order, which owns the site.

The outline permit was approved on the basis of an agreement signed by the Order’s former prior, who is the brother of the developer.

The decision was postponed last month after Planning Commission chairperson Elizabeth Ellul had asked the case officer to seek legal advice due to the objection presented by the site owners.

The authority’s legal office replied that since the applicant had a lease agreement which contemplated a car park, the applicant did not need “additional consent” from the owner.

Despite the legal reply, the Planning Commission chairman still voted against approval but was outvoted by two other board members - Anthony Borg and Claude Mallia.

The Carmelite Order is currently suing applicant Joe Cilia to rescind a lease agreement signed by its former prior, who is also his brother, which foresees commercial development on the convent grounds. 

It also presented a judicial protest asking the PA to stop processing the present application. But the PA insisted that it was legally obliged to process the application on the basis of the original lease agreement. 

In March 2017, the PA turned down a controversial commercial development consisting of retail outlets and office development on a proposed first floor.

The proposal also foresaw an underground car park for 84 spaces on the same site. Subsequently, a new application was submitted by Cilia envisaging a car park for 115 cars.

Plans presented with the application refer to the “relocation” of the existing statue of the Virgin Mary and 11 olive trees and two palm trees to the car park’s roof, which would be turned into a garden. 

The parking will consist of three underground levels and a ground-floor level. The existing boundary wall’s fronting will be retained but its height will be increased from 5.4m to 7.3m. The development is deemed to conform with the local plan.

In the application presented in March, Joe Cilia claimed he had the “consent of the owners”. But in an objection letter, the Carmelite Order insisted that the applicant did not have their consent, and that it had already informed Cilia in writing that they would object to any application for a car park in the area, prior to the submission of the latest application. 

The law specifically states that anyone submitting an application for development must certify to the PA that “he is the owner of the site or that he has notified the owner of his intention to apply by registered letter and that the owner has granted his consent to such a proposal”.

But the law also states an application can be submitted if the proponent is “authorised to carry out such proposed development under any other law or through an agreement with the owner”.

The 760sq.m site proposed for the car park lies in the back yard of the Carmelite convent which is scheduled as a Grade 2 protected building and is in the immediate vicinity of the Carmelite parish church, scheduled as Grade 1. 

The Carmelite Order had entered into a 50-year lease agreement with Cilia in 2011 for the development of the gardens into a supermarket.  Back then, the Order’s prior was Fr Anthony Cilia, the developer’s brother. The land was originally granted on emphyteusis to the Curia in 1890, on condition that it is not transferred or used for other purposes. 

When the Archbishop came to know of this contract, he immediately filed a court injunction to stop the development. The new Carmelite prior also objected to the development. 

While recommending approval the case officer warns that if the declaration of ownership, as contained in the application form, is determined as incorrect by a court of law, the development permission may be rendered null and void. 

In June, the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage strongly objected to the application warning of a “potential threat to the stability and integrity of the scheduled monuments”. 

But following the submission of a works method statement by the developer, the cultural watchdog stopped objecting to the development, while imposing a number of conditions, including the reinstatement of the garden above the proposed structures as a garden, with topsoil above the structures. The statue that is present on site is to be carefully removed, safely stored and relocated at the end of the work.

Cilia will still have to apply for a full permit as the application approved today is an outline one.

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