Robert Abela applies to rebuild Żejtun ODZ villa

The plans foresee the construction of a replacement villa with a basement garage and an overlying residence

(Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)
(Photo: James Bianchi/MediaToday)

Robert and Lydia Abela have presented plans to demolish the Żejtun villa they bought in 2017 just three months after irregularities were sanctioned by the Planning Authority. 

The plans filed by renowned architect Ray Demicoli foresee the construction of a replacement villa with a basement garage and an overlying residence. It will also have a swimming pool and landscaping around the 2,200sq.m property will be reorganised. 

The Prime Minister and his wife bought the villa in July 2017 from an elderly couple, days after the PA sanctioned multiple illegalities on the site. The Abelas bought the sprawling property named Cinja at a bargain price of €600,000. 

The previous owners of the villa had been precluded from selling it, 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 and during the March election Abela denied exercising any influence on the authority to regularise the illegalities. 

The existing property is divided into a 354sq.m main building and a further 91sq.m of rooms built along Triq Xrobb l-Ghagin. 

The new proposal concentrates the villa on a 237sq.m footprint with an overlying storey on the area occupied by the present building.  In this way the same floor area of 444sq.m will be retained over a smaller footprint. 

A pool surrounded by a grass area will be constructed on an existing landscaped area which currently includes a wooden gazebo. Areas currently occupied by a duck pool, an existing swimming pool and the existing rooms along the road will be replaced by landscaped areas. 

The works, including the excavation of the new pool, will be taking place in the buffer zone for the neighbouring Tal-Ginwi archaeological site. 

Illegal works carried out before 1994 

The unauthorized works on the 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.  

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