MEPA’s rural policy turns rubble into new homes

Owners of ruins from ODZ farmhouse that collapsed 38 years ago want new farmhouse under new policy

The pile of rubble of a building which collapsed before 1978 and which is set to pave way for ODZ dwelling
The pile of rubble of a building which collapsed before 1978 and which is set to pave way for ODZ dwelling

A pile of rubble is what is left of a Zabbar farmhouse on Sqaq tal-Fata that collapsed 38 years ago, and whose owners now want to rebuild into a dwelling.

The proposal has encountered opposition from the Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s natural heritage advisory committee.

“Although the building existed in 1957, nothing remains on site today as evidently shown in photographs presented with the application,” the NHAC said in its objection.

The landowners want to build a two-storey dwelling on a 137 square metre footprint, making it slightly smaller than the original 1957 site plan presented by the applicant.

Rebuilding old ruins outside development zones into new dwellings is permitted by the rural policy, if developers present proof that the ruins were once used as a residence.

The panel’s claim that no proof of use in this case has been submitted was rebutted by architect Robert Musumeci, who is representing owner Maryrose Seixas.

Musumeci told MaltaToday that proof of residential use has been submitted to MEPA, namely notarial deeds and a photo of the building dating back to 1957 has also been submitted to MEPA. Musumeci currently also serves as the government’s advisor on planning policies. The owner, who lives abroad, could not be contacted. 

Environmental NGO Din l-Art Helwa has also objected to the reconstruction of the proposed dwelling. While acknowledging that the building existed in 1957, the NGO noted that no part of this building is still standing.

DLH questioned whether the rural policy can be applied in cases involving buildings which no longer exist and have been in this state for more than 10 years.

Musumeci would not comment on the application, claiming that it was “sub judice”, and because he did not have his client’s consent.

The proposed reconstruction of the farmhouse had already been refused by MEPA in 1998 and confirmed by its appeals board two years later.

The case officer report confirms that the building was abandoned in 1978 and that one of the roofs had collapsed way back in 1972, followed by the collapse of one of the rooms. In 1998 the applicant pleaded with MEPA to consider her social situation, that of living with her mother in a very small house with a husband and three children. The case officer report also reveals that “some works” were conducted on site “which would make identification of the ruins even more difficult”. 


Policy paves the way for redevelopment of ruins

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

Moreover, according to the policy, any building constructed before 1978 is considered as legal. Therefore any ruin of such buildings may now be reconstructed.

Prior to 2014 buildings could only be converted if these were in a “sound structural condition” and could be converted “without substantial rebuilding.” But this was not enough to prevent the substantial rebuilding of countryside ruins, such as the building developed by former PN president Victor Scerri through a series of piecemeal applications presented by Musumeci.

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 originally 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. 

It was this policy that was invoked in September 2015 to issue a permit for the demolition of three roofless structures to be converted into a villa with a swimming pool, on the Rabat outskirts of Landrijiet – also ODZ. The villa will be built over a footprint of 165 square metres.