MEPA board unanimously rejects Sliema beach concessions

MEPA rejects applications for beach concessions on Ghar id-Dud and Qui-Si-Sana coastline.

The Preluna Hotel's application for an extended beach concession was refused by the MEPA board
The Preluna Hotel's application for an extended beach concession was refused by the MEPA board

The MEPA board has rejected two applications for beach concessions in Sliema, one proposed by the Preluna Hotel at Ferro Bay and another by entraprenuer Michael Stivala at Qui Si Sana.

The Sliema local council had objected to both applications.

The planning directorate, the technical arm of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) which overviews planning applications, had called on the authority to reject both applications.

The proposal made by the Preluna sought to replace the existing concrete platform of 85 square metres and replacing it with another platform made of limestone occupying 265 square metres to create an area which will be used for the hiring of sunbeds and umbrellas.

A staircase to link the current beach club to the proposed extension is also being proposed while plans have been submitted to change the existing concrete boundary with one built using “natural” rock.

MEPA’s Environment Protection Directorate objected to the development, as it would result in the “obliteration of the natural coast”.

According to the local plan the site is part of a designated Blue Flag beach area stretching from the Fortress to Balluta Bay, where only development relating to infrastructure, which causes no ecological harm, can be allowed.

Preluna Hotel owner Joe Preca insisted that the area dedicated for sun beds was not presently used and that it will not impact the public, as the area will not be closed, with the service being offered to the public on demand.  But when pressed by MEPA board members he could not exclude that the beach would be restricted to people hiring sun beds.

The developer's architect argued that the proposed development would upgrade the area and that hiring of sun beds would improve access to coast. He also argued that the development will level a ditch which is not used. He also cited the approval of the Malta Tourism Authority.

But residents, along with Sliema Mayor Anthony Chircop, disputed these claims, insisting that the site is used by the public. Flimkien ghal-Ambjent Ahjar's Astrid Vella insisted on the application of structure plan, which states that government should secure public ownership of the coastline. Green Party deputy chairman Carmel Cacopardo insisted that concrete does not improve environment.

The Opposition representative on the MEPA board, Nationalist MP Ryan Callus also took umbrage at the way the developers diminished the importance of the natural rock features, asking  “does not throw concrete in the Grand Canyon to improve it... How can concrete be reversible as claimed by the developers?” Callus asked.

Architect Edward Said objected to the way the developer referred to natural feauters in the area as a ditch, arguing that these 'neptunian dykes'  are an important element in the coastline's ecology.


Qui-Si-Sana concession

The  MEPA board also  rejected an application presented by Michael Stivala, owner of the Bayview hotel, for a beach concession at Qui-Si-Sana, beneath Gnien Bonello du Puis.

The beach concession was issued on the watch of the previous government through a letter sent by the Government Property Division in December 2012 but still required a planning permit to operate.

Michael Stivala runs the Bayview Hotel on the Gzira Strand, and is a council member of the Malta Developers Association and the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association.

According to the case officer's report, the development would be in violation of the structure plan policy CZM3, which seeks to protect and secure public access of the coastline and of local plan policies, which only allow minor extensions to existing developments on the coastline.

Since no existing facility exists on this site, MEPA cannot approve any development on it, the case officer contends. Surprisingly  the Environment Protection Directorate had not opposed this development despite the presence of rock pools.

According to the DPA report the development will also result in the further loss of natural coastline environment.

The application foresaw the creation of a lido through the laying of polyethylene sheeting over the rocky coast and the use of screed to make up the level terraces. A ramp leading to the sea is also being proposed.

The 943-square metre site lies between two existing lidos: the Plevna Beach club and the Lido.

Stivala argued that the beach concession would make the beach accessible to the disabled, as it includes plans for ramps, while also claiming that residents in general will benefit from this since the rocks will be levelled.

Stivala also claimed that deckchairs will be given on demand, and won’t occupy the coast.

The developer's architect argued that the site lies between two existing lidos (Plevna and The Lido) and would bring about a "consolidation" of development in this area and an improved tourist product.

He also presented photos that showed the beach deserted on that particular day, with only one family having visited it.

He insisted that the Lands Department had given out the land as a lido and that in December 2012, MEPA has already issued a temporary permit (DNO) on 18 April 2013 for placing of sun beds from sunrise to sunset. The DNO was never utilised.

MEPA chairman Vince Cassar raised questions on how this DNO was issued in view of existing policies.

The directorate insisted that the reason for refusal was down to restriction of public access, and that the local plan only allows minor extensions to existing  structures and that no structures exist on site. 

Mayor Anthony Chircop also opposed this application, insisting that all of Sliema’s coast should remain accessible. “The fact that it is claimed that the area is not frequented by sun bathers cannot be used as an excuse to give the land to developers.”

Astrid Vella, of Flimkien ghal-Ambjent Ahjar, claimed that the area is less frequented than others because of a perception that it is privately owned. “The fact that there are already five private resorts in the area only makes it is even  more important for the public to retain ownership of what is left.”

MEPA board member Victor Axiaq insisted on the ecological value of the rock pools which include fauna which should not be developed. “If you want to improve environment, go do it somewhere else.”

FAA reaction

The decisions were welcomed by Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar (FAA).

Present at the hearing, FAA contested the developers’ claims that these beaches are inaccessible to the public and unusable. Claims that the proposed concrete structures would enhance the beach and would be reversible were also rebutted by the MEPA Board.

“While the Qui Si Sana developer argued that he should be permitted to develop the beach because it is flanked by other private concessions, FAA maintains that it is precisely because of the encroachment of public beaches in Sliema, that the remaining natural and free beaches need to remain so,” the NGO said.

FAA highlighted the fact that Sliema has already lost too many heritage features, including prehistoric cart ruts buried under the large cement platform at Qui Si Sana, and that MEPA should not permit these further impacts on the setting of the Grade 1 scheduled Fortizza and the WWII searchlight emplacement overlooking the contested Qui Si Sana foreshore.

“Above all, these applications violated the Structure Plan pledge to protect ‘public access around the coastline immediately adjacent to the sea or at the top of cliffs. This will include taking shorelands into public ownership, Government acquisition of illegal developments and encroachments… All the coastline will be brought into public ownership within a specified period.’

“Similarly the Local Plan stresses: ‘Given the heavily urbanized environment of the North Harbours area, it becomes even more important to protect from any form of urban development the few remaining unspoilt stretches of natural coast.’”

Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar supported by Friends of the Earth and Ramblers had organised a petition against the encroachment of public spaces and beaches which attracted over 2,000 signatures.

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