Prime Minister’s villa regularised by PA months before purchase

Illegalities in ODZ villa Robert Abela bought for €600,000 had been regularised by the PA’s planning commission three months before

Labour leader Robert Abela acquired his Żejtun villa, a 2,200 square metre estate named ‘Ċinja’, just three months after it was regularised by the Planning Authority and freed from restrictions for its sale. 

Its owners had been precluded from selling the villa to third parties, in a case characterised by conflicting policies and planning interpretations. 

Abela was at the time the chief lawyer to the Planning Authority when in April 2017, the PA’s planning commission approved owner Joseph Camilleri’s request to ‘regularise’ illegal alterations and additions to the dwelling. The permit included no involvement of the PA’s legal office. 

The contract certifying the €600,000 property sale to Abela was signed on 10 July, 2017. 

The unauthorised works on the Triq Xrobb l-Għaġin villa had been carried out before 1994 and then regularised by the PA’s planning commission in 2017. 

The illegal extensions had doubled the size of the farmhouse to 352sq.m, when such ODZ (outside development zone) buildings could only be extended up to a maximum 200sq.m floor area. 

The PA’s case officer, who recommended approval, recognised that the scale of the additions was the main issue with regularisation, given that the total floor area of the existing building exceeded the 200sq.m allowance. 

But the case officer justified approval, on the basis of a Rural Policy clause allowing extensions carried out before October 1994 to be regularised “if the extension does not visually dominate the existing dwelling” and if these are considered “acceptable in the wider landscape”. 

Moreover the case officer also refers to “steel sheds” on an area of 440sq.m which were removed between 1994 and 1998, arguing their removal over 20 years ago to make way for landscaping, made the sanctioning of the illegally-built structures “acceptable”. Since a store proposed for sanctioning was located at a lower level from the rest of the building, the case officer felt it did not visually dominate the site. 

An 80sq.m swimming pool and decking area was also developed without a permit, but this was deemed acceptable because it had replaced two small rooms demolished before 1994, while animal enclosures in the same site were justified because these predated the 1994 cut-off date. 

The site also happened to be in a buffer zone for the Ħal Ginwi archaeological site, but the case officer deemed the swimming pool acceptable because it consists of a “plastic” structure and its construction did not involve any excavations. 

Objections by the Agricultural Advisory Committee were also overruled on the basis that the illegalities to be sanctioned pre-dated 1994. The advisory panel had insisted that since the development had involved “the unjustified uptake of agricultural land” it was in breach of policies encouraging soil conservation. The panel had also objected to the regularisation of animal enclosures for donkeys and poultry, due to the absence of documentation on the animals kept on the site. 

Conflicting policies 

As often happens in similar cases involving ODZ dwellings, the favourable recommendation was based on an interpretation of conflicting policies by the case officer. 

While the 200sq.m threshold limiting extensions of ODZ dwellings is mandatory, the allowance made for the regularisation of pre-1994 structures depends on the case officer’s interpretation as underlined by the use of the word “may be regularised” in the policy. What is remarkable in this case is that the removal of a 440sq.m shed more than 20 years ago, was used as justification for regularising other illegal structures still present on site in 2017. 

The Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) had not objected to the development but noted that the plans for the development approved in 1985 “did not have a stamp of approval” and therefore “it cannot be accurately determined whether the quoted permit and building indicated as ‘approved’ on plans relates to the development of the site in question or otherwise”. 

But an analysis of aerial photos by ERA showed that the development was built as it is today “save for a few modifications”. The case officer also recommended a €45,000 fine for the sanctioning of these illegalities, and even asked the PA’s planning commission whether the value should be doubled. Minutes of the board meeting indicate that no discussion took place on this matter.