Updated | Five planning board members recuse themselves from DB project meeting

DB project decision time | The chairpersons of the planning board and the Environment Resources Authority have withdrawn from the meeting • Saga has pitted environmentalists and residents against a major developer

Photo montage of the City Centre project proposed by the DB Group on the site of the former ITS in Pembroke
Photo montage of the City Centre project proposed by the DB Group on the site of the former ITS in Pembroke

This story will be updated regularly

Five members of the planning board have recused themselves from today’s meeting that is to decide the fate of the DB Group’s City Centre project in Pembroke.

Planning Board Chairman Vince Cassar, environment authority Chairman Victor Axiak, NGO representative Annick Bonello and board member Joseph Brincat cited a court sentence that led to the revocation of the first permit issued in 2018 to justify their withdrawal from the meeting.

Board member Chris Cilia also recused himself due to a conflict of interest stemming from his professional role.

Apart from Cilia, the four members who recused themselves were part of the PA board that first approved the permit in 2018.

However, in a landmark judgment, the court had invalidated the decision because of a conflict of interest by board member Mathew Pace due to his involvement in a real estate company selling apartments in the project.

But the court had also ruled that “any declaration made by board members on how they will be voting casts a dark shadow on the impartiality and seriousness expected of PA board members”. The judgment stated that whenever board members express an opinion on a project they should “recuse” themselves from voting.

The judge had clarified that the ban on board members expressing themselves before voting does not preclude them from presenting arguments and asking questions before voting.

Today’s meeting will still go ahead as a quorum of seven was reached.

What is the PA deciding on?

The Planning Authority will today decide whether to approve two 17-storey towers and a 12-storey hotel on the site of the former tourism school in Pembroke.

The project is proposed by the DB Group that acquired the ITS site in a controversial land deal approved in February 2017 under the aegis of former minister Konrad Mizzi.

Known as City Centre, the project is being recommended for approval by the case officer. The PA board can either confirm the recommendation and approve the project or postpone its decision to another sitting if a majority intend voting against.

Photo montage of how the City Centre project will look from the Paceville side of St George's Bay
Photo montage of how the City Centre project will look from the Paceville side of St George's Bay

The initial plans for a 38-storey tower and a 17-storey hotel were first approved in a controversial sitting in 2018 during which a planning board member was brought over to Malta in a private jet to vote.

The permit was eventually revoked by the courts.

The developers reacted by presenting a separate application to excavate the site before a permit was even issued in a move, which drew the ire of the Local Councils Association.  

This application was later withdrawn and the development was downscaled to 31 floors in new plans submitted last year, with developers claiming they had “listened and acted” to criticism of the project.

But in the face of unrelenting opposition and more objections, plans were changed again with the developers proposing two towers of 17 floors.

More than 17,000 objections have been submitted to the development in its various stages of the planning saga.

Environment NGOs led by Moviment Graffitti and the Swieqi and St Julians local councils reiterated their opposition to the project in a press conference on Monday.

Graffitti described the project as “one of the worse projects” to be ever proposed, insisting that it does not fit within a residential area like Pembroke.

The Labour-led Pembroke council welcomed some improvements in the project but in its final position reiterated its opposition to the latest plans deemed to be “disproportionate” to the residential area it is in.

Pembroke Mayor Dean Hili, who sits on the planning board as representative of the council, is expected to vote against the project.

READ ALSO: Concerns flagged by NAO on former ITS site remain unaddressed, Chamber of Commerce warns

Case officer report

The case officer has recommended approval of the project, welcoming the redevelopment of “a gated area into a landmark building to be used as a touristic, leisure, commercial and residential complex”.

According to the report the project conforms with the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development since the area forms part of an urban area on land designated as an entertainment priority zone in the North Harbours local plan.

The recommendation to approve the project by both the ERA and the case officer is based on the assumption that a 1.4km tunnel will be dug beneath a Natura 2000 site in Pembroke, the environmental impacts of which are yet to be assessed in a separate application presented by Infrastructure Malta.