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Environment NGO 'disgusted' by MEPA Board decision on Villa Mekrech development Environmental NGO Flimkien ghal-Ambjent Ahjar spokesperson Astrid Vella expressed disgust following a ruling made yesterday by the Board of the Malta Environment and Planning Authority to approve the construction of flats in the garden of Villa Mekrech in Ghaxaq. “The MEPA Board dropped any pretence of environmental and heritage protection when it approved the construction of flats in the garden of Villa Mekrech in Ghaxaq,” Vella said. In 2005, Vella said the MEPA Heritage Committee had demanded that this garden be scheduled as “the uniqueness of this feature in the Maltese Islands as well as the integrity of the garden cannot be overstated.” The 2006 Local Plan designated it as a protected enclave but in 2008, an Outline permit was granted against the advice of MEPA’s planning Directorate. “The scheduling of this Baroque treasure was only enacted a month ago on the insistence of the FAA, however the protection left out part of the garden, making it easier for the developer to obtain a full permit there,” Vella explained. MEPA’s Planning Directorate still insisted that the project was not acceptable since the proposed internal residential development will “entirely destroy the existing garden”. Vella added that this permit violated seven clauses specifically included in the Local Plan to protect heritage homes in the South of Malta. In a statement issued shortly afterwards, MEPA said it had given a Grade 2 level of protection to Villa Mekrech and its formal garden on Santa Marija Street in Ghaxaq. MEPA said that to protect the Villa Mekrech and its formal large garden, it designated the area behind the formal garden with its frontage on Conception Street as a buffer zone. “This means any development can only have a depth of 25m from the street with a limited height restriction of two floor and a stairwell access of 1.5m metres in height. No services can be placed on the roof of the stairwell, to safeguard the visual integrity of the townhouse and its gardens.” MEPA said that both the outline development permit, granted in October 2008, and the full development permission application were in line with the scheduling conditions. On the uprooting of trees, MEPA simply said it had issued a permit for the uprooting and relocation of three olives trees in 2009. According to Vella, in discussing the destruction of trees on the site MEPA Chairman Austin Walker said he did not feel the permit could be delayed “for a few trees”. “Reports about the destruction of trees reached MEPA in August 2010 however Enforcement officers only inspected over a year later and the Environment Directorate claimed there was no abuse, in spite of photographic evidence to the contrary. “Walker claimed that investigating the destruction of the trees would be ‘a wild goose chase’ in spite of the fact that MEPA has at its disposal aerial photos of the site taken every few years,” Vella said. Judge Vanni Bonello expressed his disappointment that he would have no choice but to vote in favour of the permit, due to the Outline permit having been issued. However, Vella pointed to the Case Officer’s clause saying that in case of confirmation of unauthorised destruction of trees, the Outline permission becomes invalid and the proposal needs to be reassessed. “Photographic evidence was produced to show that trees had been destroyed, therefore the Outline permit was invalid and the Full development permit could in fact be refused.” The permit was approved by the majority of MEPA Directors, including Vanni Bonello and Philip Manduca, who had been appointed to represent the interests of heritage. Roderick Galdes voted against the project. According to MEPA’s Heritage Unit, the proposed development will demolish part of the large garden and such a proposal would compromise the heritage value of the rest of the property. “This is because it will serve as a precedent for similar redevelopment requests on the abutting related gardens, thus destroying this heritage site in a piecemeal manner. This will not only deprive residents of the sight and health benefits of the trees in this garden, but also impact the touristic potential of the south of the island,” Vella said. FAA expressed its disgust at the MEPA Board’s refusal to investigate the evidence of abuse presented and declared that it “has lost all faith” in the MEPA Board. “What is the point of paying millions of Euros in taxpayer’s money for sham hearings and the issuing of permits to destroy heritage, just was done in the past,” Vella said.