DB group to take Planning Authority to court over permit revocation

NGOs and local councils mount new campaign to object to excavation permits for DB’s City Centre project

Silvio Debono’s DB Group has filed a judicial protest demanding damages from the Planning Authority, arguing that a recent court decision against its City Centre project failed to safeguard its right to a fair hearing.

In a ruling issued in June, the Court of Appeal declared the planning permit granted in September last year for DB’s City Centre project in St George’s Bay, to be null and void.

Judge Mark Chetcuti had ruled that Planning Authority board member Matthew Pace had a conflict of interest because of his involvement in a REMAX real estate franchise with an interest in selling property units in City Centre, when he voted on the project, and revoked the permit.

In the judicial protest, signed by lawyers Stefano Filletti and Edward Gatt, the protestants are accusing the PA of having “failed to safeguard the fundamental principles of a fair hearing, with the protestant having had no knowledge of the particular circumstances tied to the hearing.”

Due to this shortcoming, the protestants are arguing that it had “suffered serious and grave prejudice, resulting in the loss of precious time in the approval and issuance of the relevant permits, and in damages and large expenses.”

In this regard, through the judicial protest, DB is demanding the Authority liquidate and pay the relevant damages, and is holding it “directly and solely” responsible for the financial losses incurred by the Group.

The DB Group will be re-activating its application for a permit to construct the City Centre development on the site of the former Institute for Tourism Studies (ITS). “The [court] revocation was based exclusively on one, single point: that the court deemed that a member of the adjudicating Board had a conflict of interest,” the company said. “Clearly, this had absolutely nothing to do with the DB Group and even less so with the project itself.”

The court appeal which resulted in the revocation of the permit, was made possible by a crowd-funding initiative by NGOs, local councils and residents.

The €300 million City Centre project, which includes a 37-storey tower and 17-storey hotel, was approved in September 2018 despite an unprecedented 4,500 objections from the public, local councils and NGOs.

Controversy surrounded the granting of the ITS public land to the DB Group in 2017 for a premium of €15 million spread over seven years. The government would have also raked in €23.4 million from redeemed leases once the residential apartment are sold.

Yesterday, NGOs and three local councils encouraged the public to file objections to the new application.

“The application for stand-alone excavation is a clear case of an attempt to evade a holistic evaluation of the full impacts of the development. It is obvious that the whole planning and assessment procedure is being split into many stages to avoid having a study on the whole, final, gargantuan project and its environmental and related impacts,” the NGOs said.

The proposed excavation provides no indication of what is to become of the excavation waste.

Yet the excavation of the former ITS site was part of the DB group’s original permit. “Filing a separate application for excavation at this stage is clearly in contempt of court and a bla-tant ruse to circumvent the effects of the ruling. It is illogical to request a permit for exca-vation in relation to a project for which there is no permit in hand. Such an application can mean only two things: that the approval of the whole project is a foregone conclusion, thus admitting that the planning system is a farce, or that there is the risk of excavations taking place without the project being eventually approved, leaving a massive hole and a site ru-ined beyond repair. It is one way or the other,” the NGOs said.

The local councils comprise Pembroke, St Julian’s and Swieqi, while the NGOs include BirdLife, Din l-Art Ħelwa, Flimkien għal Ambjent Aħjar, Friends of the Earth Malta, Moviment Graffitti and Nature Trust.