Published on MaltaToday on Sunday 6th November, 2011 by James Debono.
Hondoq ir-Rummien project back on the table.
A decade has passed since Gozo Prestige applied to turn Hondoqir-Rummien into tourist village. Why has it taken MEPA so long to determine the fate of this controversial project?
10 years down the line, the Hondoq ir-Rummien project is back on the drawing board.
The project seemed destined for a refusal some time next year. In August, The Malta Environment and Planning Authority’s environmental arm – the Environment Protection Directorate – had already called on the authority to refuse the project.
MEPA’s Planning Directorate was just about to issue the final case officer report when the developers presented a set of new plans which retained the residential aspect of the project but dropped the yacht marina, replacing it with a swimming lagoon.
But the authority has told the Hondoq ir-Rummien developers that it would only consider the latest plans if a new application is presented.
This means that instead of delaying the processing of the present application further, MEPA chose to put an end to the present saga.
It is now up to the developer whether to commence a new saga instead of concluding the one initiated 10 years ago.
MEPA justifies asking the developers to present a new and separate application because the latest plans not only change the nature of the project but “cover a site area that goes beyond that of the current applications”.
This left MEPA no choice but to advise the applicants “that should they wish to proceed with the latest changes and have them processed by the Authority, this should be done through a new and separate application”.
If the developers do present a new application, MEPA will be spared from taking a decision on the project in the immediate future.
In the absence of an outright refusal, the project could survive to live for another day. But the major hurdle for the project was the change in political climate after 2008 when the government embarked on its eco-Gozo plans. Only a change in this climate will turn the clock back for theHondoq developers.
What is sure is that the political climate was favourable to the developers in 2006 when the government issued the local plan for Gozo.
In fact the draft for the Gozo local plan, issued for public consultation in 2002, made no reference to tourist development in Hondoq.
It limited itself to saying that MEPA would consider proposals from public agencies, to upgrade beach facilities at Hondoq ir-Rummien.
The envisaged development was limited to the rehabilitation of the quarry, the provision of basic beach amenities and unrestricted public access to the beach.
But the new Gozo local plan, approved in 2006, facilitated the approval of the project, referring to “tourism and marine related uses” and “sensitively designed, high quality and low density buildings that blend into the landscape”. Hondoq was also identified as the site of a “destination port” – a euphemism for a yacht marina.
In fact, the authors of a project developments statement presented immediately after the publication of the local plan refer to the delay between 2002 and 2006 as “four years of pro-active consultation” with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority.
Moreover while MEPA was consulting with the developer, no public consultation was conducted on the changes made in the local plan.
The developers make bold claims to make their development an environmentally friendly one. Through landscaping they promised to create the perception that the project is the “work of nature itself”. They also wanted to create the impression that the new village has “evolved organically over the last century”.
Clearly, back then the wind was in their sail, to the extent that even GozoMinister Giovanna Debono described the Hondoq project as beneficial toGozo.
Change in climate
But the goal posts changed after 2008. Facing an uphill election, the PNsuccessfully reinvented itself as an environmentally friendly party. Upon being re-elected, the Prime Minister even declared a zero tolerance stance towards ODZ development. For environmentalists, the Hondoq project became the litmus test for the seriousness of the government’s intentions.
Moreover, the project contrasted with the eco-Gozo vision.
In view of all this, a refusal of the Hondoq project would have legitimisedMEPA reform in the eyes of sceptics.
In a clear indication that the project was heading nowhere, Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco himself declared that “our environment is too small to afford to suffer any more mistakes than we have already committed in the past, sometimes even in the name of tourism and progress”.
On her part, Gozo Minister Giovanna Debono now says that she would respect any decision by MEPA.
Neither can the developers remain hope in a more favourable political climate. While the government is no longer keen on the project, both theLabour Party and Alternattiva Demokratika are opposed to it.
Labour leader Joseph Muscat had already stated his opposition to the project in 2010. Contacted on Thursday and asked to comment on the latest plans presented by the developers, Labour’s spokesperson for planning Roderick Galdes confirmed that the party remains against the project.
In this unfavourable political scenario, developers seemed bent on deliberately delaying the process.
The first delay took place between the submission of the EIA in 2007, and its certification by MEPA in 2010.
A report issued by the Environment Protection Directorate blames theEIA coordinator for “the conspicuously lengthy period to reach a certifiable version of the EIS”.
The EPD attributes this delay to the “prolonged failure by the EIACoordinator to address the issues in terms of reference of the project markedly delaying the certification process”.
In April 2009, the EPD had to issue a final reminder, in which it threatened to stop considering the proposal if changes to the EIS were not presented in two months.
The first draft of the EIA, which included titles like ‘Yes to the Hondoq ir-Rummien Yacht Marina’ was blasted by the EPD for its poor quality, and its bias in favour of the proposal.
The EPD also refused to accept a number of reports in the study and requested resubmission by different qualified consultants.
The second delay occurred between certification and commencement of public consultation period.
The year-long delay was attributed to the applicant’s initial opposition to hold public consultation in Qala. The EPD insisted that the locality most affected by the development should host the public event. There was also resistance by owners of appropriate venues in Qala (namely the SalaParrokjali and Qala Primary School) to make their venues available for the public meeting. The council also asked for a six-month period during which it could review the EIS.
Avoiding past mistakes
What is sure is that nearly 10 years after the saga commenced, neither the people of Qala nor the developers have a definite answer on whether the project will take place or not.
The lengthy period taken to determine the Hondoq project mirrors that of the Ta’ Cenc and Verdala golf course developments.
This raises the question: shouldn’t developers be told from day one whether their projects are destined to failure or not?
The present MEPA reform includes a screening period, after which MEPAinforms the developer whether the development conforms to established policies or not.
Developers are now free to proceed even if MEPA advises them not to. But if this happens, nobody will blame MEPA for the subsequent delays.
Still, this does not solve the other problem – that of politicians changing the goal posts, by first actively encouraging ODZ developments only to change tack in the face of public opposition.
Ultimately, a degree of stability in our planning regime, anchored in sound planning policies, remains the best antidote against both unsustainable development and shifting political goal posts.
June 2002: Gozo Prestige a company owned by Gozitan businessmen Victor Bajada presents application for the construction of a destination port comprising a 195 bedroom hotel, a yacht marina and a tourist village consisting of300 apartments, and a yacht marina set to accommodate 150 to 200 yachts
November 2002: Following a campaign spearheaded by parish priest Dun Karm Refalo, 85% of Qala residents reject project in referendumorganised by local council.
August 2006: Gozo Local Plan paves the way for project stating that: “the preferred use is to sensitively develop the area. Tourism and marine-related development may be considered by MEPA”. Hondoq ir-Rummienis identified as a destination port.
August 2006: Hondoq ir-Rummien project re-emerges from the closet as Project Development statement is presented by developers who describe delay as a “four years of pro-active consultation” with the Malta Environment and Planning Authority.
2007: Developers present EIA to MEPA. But MEPA repeatedly asks authors of EIA to change parts of study. The EIA was only certified in June 2009.
May 2010: EIA on Hondoq ir-Rummien project issued for public consultation.
June 2010: Speaking on the project, Parliamentary Secretary Mario de Marco says authorities cannot afford to repeat past mistakes.
August 2011: MEPA’s environment arm – the Environment Protection Department –calls on MEPA board to refuse development and blasts EIAas ‘biased’ and ‘irregular’.
October 2011: Developers present new plans dropping marina.
November 2011: MEPA tells developers that they have to present new application.