Published on The Malta Independent on Sunday on 7th January 2007 by David Lindsay.
Four years after the controversial Qala Creek development was shelved following vociferous protests by residents from the nearby Gozitan village of Qala, and a referendum among them that had 85 per cent voting against it, the project is now back on the drawing board.
But conversations with the people of Qala bear little indication that their stance against the proposed development, despite a redrafting of the original proposals, has been altered with the passing of time.
And while any such development in the coastal area, known as Hondoq ir-Rummien, is sure to be met with opposition, as had been the case four years ago, the battle lines this time around appear to have been redrawn.
In 2002, Malta’s main political parties had remained distant from the debate, which had highlighted the delicate balance between environmental conservation and development. This time around, however, the government appears to be endorsing the multi-million liri proposal, while first Alternattiva Demokratika and, more recently, the Malta Labour Party have both thrown their weight against the project.
The so-called “Qala Creek” project was rehashed in December 2005 and presented to the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (MEPA) in January 2006. At the moment, the development is at the Project Description Statement (PDS) stage.
The developers insist the tourist village, accompanying marina and other facilities have been designed in environmentally sound fashion to mitigate against any potential disturbances to the local community.
Their opponents, meanwhile, consider any development in the area, apart from a return to its natural state after decades of degradation, as wreaking irreversible damage on a precious stretch of the Gozitan landscape.
Irrespective of the merits of conserving or developing the area in question, the interests of big money and the promise of bolstering Gozo’s tourism product and employment levels – despite the recent closing of a number of hotels on the island – hang in the balance.
The large parcel of land, with its views of Comino and Malta, has had something of a chequered history.
Formerly owned by the Augustinian religious order, it has been passed over to Gozo Prestige Holidays, headed by lawyer cum entrepreneur Victor Bajada. Although the government had expropriated the land, the company has purchased it on promise of sale (kunvenju) – and on condition that full development permits are awarded.
If development permission is granted, the Order stands to receive the full sale price of Lm10,000 per square kilometre and at 68 square kilometres, the total sale price amounts to Lm680,000.
The land had been expropriated by the government in 1970 for quarrying related to the construction of the Mgarr breakwater. A now defunct reverse osmosis plant had later been built on the edge of the popular sandy beach, where its remnants still stand.
In late June 2002, the government returned the land to the Order and the following week, on 4 July 2002, Gozo Prestige Holidays presented its development application to MEPA.
The proposed developers intend spending some e90 million on the project if approved.
And, despite the pressures of big business, and the promise of business opportunities and jobs for many of Qala’s dissenters, the vast majority of villagers and Malta’s environmentalists appear to be set steadfastly against the development in both its previous and current incarnations.
Speaking recently to The Malta Independent on Sunday at the proposed development site, Moviment Harsien Hondoq representatives expressed their concern that despite continued stiff local opposition, the new development plan and the way it is being processed are still not taking local concerns into due consideration.
“The way things are happening, it appears that only the interests of the prospective developer are being considered,” commented the movement’s spokesperson Paul Buttigieg. “And the 85 per cent referendum is being ignored.”
The movement, which has set up an extensive website outlining its main objections and a petition against the development, aims to rehabilitate the area, including the gaping, exhausted quarry and natural spring pool, transforming it into a national park once it is returned to its natural, pristine state.
In fact, if there is one thing both the developers and their opponents agree upon, is the fact that the area is in dire need of rehabilitation.
But while the opponents are pushing for a return to its natural state, the developers propose further excavating the quarry and the surrounding area. The sea would be let into the quarry to create a yacht marina, while accommodation units would be built up its sides.
Opponents object to further quarrying, which they say would represent twice the amount of rock already extracted, and to the excavation of the current parking lot to let the sea into the quarry basin. The new inlet, ‘Qala Creek’, will be just metres away from the sandy beach.
The development, which is envisaged to be finished by 2010, is impressive on paper and comprises a five-star 170-room hotel, 25 villas, 60 self-catering units, 200 multi-ownership residences, a ‘village centre’ with a small church, administration offices, small-scale shops and restaurants and the 100-150 vessel marina.The village itself, according to the developer’s proposals, will assimilate the style and character of a traditional Gozitan village that had developed organically over at least a century.
The proposed developers insist they are to mitigate against environmental degradation and to promote sustainability. Such measures include the landscaped areas of the development and rooftops of the terraced buildings being planted with endemic plants, and the creation of heritage and nature trails. It is planned that the project will have its own sewage treatment and reverse osmosis plants and that the main air-conditioning plant will be cooled by seawater.
With the area being an immensely popular site for bathing, barbecues, picnics and nature walks, opponents are concerned that the development will severely hamper such activities and irreversibly mar the landscape as a whole.
The developers, however, argue the public stands to gain from the project in a number of ways. These include the rebuilding and upgrading of the jetty area to hold sunbathing, seating and fishing zones, as well as an outdoor dining area. It will also provide better public sanitation and locker and changing rooms for bathers, improved access to the entire beach and an extension of the swimming zone. The developers also intend to upgrade the access road and approach to the beach and construct a public promenade along the marina waterfront, a heritage trail to the Qala redoubt and a nature trail in what will be a rehabilitated garigue zone.
Furthermore, the developers have pledged to landscape and conserve the entire undeveloped area and that a relatively small portion of the land mass will be used for actual construction. According to the PDS, the proposed buildings are to occupy 16.7 per cent of the site and 26.9 per cent of the quarry. 81.2 per cent of the entire quarry site area will be comprised of landscaping, outdoor spaces and the seawater basin, including rooftop and terrace soft landscaping.
Aesthetics of the final development aside, the Qala residents are also concerned about the heavy traffic flows through the village’s narrow streets, particularly during the excavation of the remainder of the quarry and the cliff faces in the area. They also expect the disturbance to continue through the construction phase and later for servicing and accessing the resort.
Although the movement opposes the disturbance such traffic would inevitably create, it points to an alternate route being suggested, a coastal road running from Mgarr harbour straight to Hondoq ir-Rummien, would, if approved, inevitably open the entire area up for more speculation on the basis that applications for development along roads are generally viewed more favourably. Land in the vicinity of the road, they say, is already owned by property developers.
Another source of concern is the quality of the bathing water. The Hondoq ir-Rummien beach is one of the most popular in Gozo, and has some of the cleanest waters in the whole of Gozo and Malta. It additionally provides one of the few, if not the only, safe place to swim when Gozo experiences prevailing majjistral (northwest) winds.
The movement insists the pristine waters will be polluted as a result of heavy yacht traffic passing just metres away from the beach and, although the sandy beach has not been included in the development as such, the opponents argue the beach as well as the entire surrounding area will suffer and be visually marred as a result of the development.At present, the beach’s calm, pristine waters are a major attraction and hoards of bathers are drawn to the area every day in summer.
The public parking lot above the beach currently holds spaces for 250-odd cars, which, according to residents, hardly suffices at peak times. Although the developers have proposed supplying a total of 731 parking spots to serve the entire development, only 90 are to be allocated for public parking along the foreshore, while the rest are to be subdivided across the resort.
One major concession in the current PDS is the substitution of the breakwater proposed in 2002 with a rubber dam and/or spillway gate at the land-sea boundary to provide the necessary defence of the marina. The movement, however, points out that the breakwater element of the project had been pulled not because of its derogatory visual impact, but because of regulations on the protection of the marine environment.
But despite the developer’s pledges, Mr Buttigieg stresses that if a project of such magnitude were approved, “It would not be a one-off development but would merely be the first in a string of developments that would devour the whole eastern side of Gozo at a very quick pace, as has happened in other areas of the island.” However, while MEPA continues to consider the PDS, what is clearly lacking is a distinct plan for Gozo on which the merits of this, and future developments, can be based upon.
As AD chairman Harry Vassallo put it recently: “I think the biggest challenge right now is that there is no clear vision for Gozo. Nobody really knows whether to build on a Gozo that looks like Manhattan or a Gozo that will exploit its natural and heritage assets while also preserving them.”