Ruins make way for villa and pool in Wied il-Busbies

The ruins, located in a designated buffer zone for an area of ecological importance, will be converted in a villa because its owners can claim evidence of former residents

Roofless and long-abandoned countryside ruins can be transformed into villas – thanks to the controversial Rural Policy in Design Guidelines approved in 2014.  All the owner has to do is prove that the structures had served as a dwelling in the past.

It was this policy that was invoked to issue a permit for the demolition of three roofless structures to be converted into a villa with a swimming pool, outside development zones in Rabat’s Landrijiet.

The ruins are located in a designated buffer zone for an area of ecological importance.

The villa, proposed by applicant Louis Vella, will be built over a footprint of 165 square metres. The proposed swimming pool area includes a rock feature and will have an area of 65 square metres. The owners have also committed themselves to plant 36 new trees.

Curiously, the demolition and complete redevelopment of ‘ruins’ was specifically excluded in the first draft policy regulating rural and ODZ developments issued for public consultation in October 2013. The policy defined as a ruin any dilapidated structure “which had lost the majority of its supporting walls or roofs”. But this important clause was excluded in the final policy approved by the government a year later. 

The villa will be built over 165 square metres in a designated buffer zone for an area of ecological importance
The villa will be built over 165 square metres in a designated buffer zone for an area of ecological importance

Last month, MEPA’s Environment and Planning Commission (EPC) chaired by architect Elisabeth Ellul – who led the formulation of the new policy – unanimously approved the application presented by Louis Vella to transform the ruins described as “pre-1987 structures” into a villa.

In so doing, the EPC overturned the recommendation to refuse the permit by both the Planning, and the Environment Protection directorates. 

The Environment Protection Directorate warned that “the proposal to replace the ruins of low-key rural structures with a fully fledged villa and ancillary structures like a pool, artificial rock features, standalone sanitary facilities and a formal garden raises serious concerns from an environmental point of view”.

It also said that the development was “objectionable in principle” and insisted that such developments should only take place within the development zone.

The Natural Heritage Advisory Committee agreed with the EPD.

But since the new policies approved by the Labour government approve the extension and demolition of countryside ruins to make way for 200 sq.m buildings, the main issue for the board was whether the building had been previously used as a residence or not.

In fact, the EPC unanimously approved the development after claiming that there was sufficient evidence to prove the residential status of the site. The MEPA board also noted that the structure was visible in the 1967 Survey Sheet and compatible with the new policy regulating ODZ rural development.

Evidence of former residents

The evidence was given through notarial searches showing that the original owners had lived in this property and that the property had been passed through generations to its current owners.

Moreover, the death certificate of the couple who left the property in inheritance had been signed in the farmhouse at Wied Busbies.

The other evidence submitted by the architect consisted of electoral registers issued in 1967, 1968 and 1970. The 1970 register showed that 30 voters were registered at Wied Busbies, 21 of which were registered in a building known as ‘the farmhouse’.

The case officer disputed this evidence, insisting that there was no proof that the farmhouse mentioned in the death certificate and the electoral registers were found on the site of the ruins.

He warned that in the absence of evidence establishing a clear link between the two, all owners of ruins in the area would make the same claim. In view of this the case officer kept insisting that the proposed villa constituted completely new development in the ODZ, which is not allowed by the new rural policy.

Moreover the case officer pointed out that in 2008, an application presented by another applicant (Austin Xuereb) had referred to the same structures as being agricultural stores. This showed that the buildings in questions were not dwellings but agricultural stores.

Previously refused permits

MEPA had already refused a proposal to rehabilitate the same agricultural rooms in 2009. The Appeals Tribunal confirmed the decision in 2012. 

Following a site inspection carried out in 2011, the Tribunal had noted that the three rooms lacked roofs and where completely abandoned. It also noted that all was left of one of the rooms were the foundations.

The architect also confirmed that although a substantial part of the room structures were in existence, “the roofs had collapsed”. 

Back then, planning policies only foresaw the rehabilitation and conversion of old agricultural structures and did not allow their complete redevelopment. But the system was still abused in some notable cases, such as the one involving ruins owned by former PN president Victor Scerri in Bahrija.  

Ironically, had the new rules been in place, Scerri would have been able to entirely demolish and rebuild the farmhouse without having to resort to a series of piecemeal applications presented by his architect Robert Musumeci.

But since the Bahrija villa is located in an ‘area of ecological importance’, Scerri would also have had to prove that the development he was proposing had no impact on the area of ecological importance where it was proposed. 

The new policy makes no such provision for additional studies for developments located in buffer zones to areas of ecological importance, as was the case in the Wied il-Busbies villa development.