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In June last year, the owners of the Ħondoq land told the government they would relinquish their rights to the area but they wanted €17 million in return.

The story of a 20-year fight to save Ħondoq Bay

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On Thursday afternoon, after a two-decade battle, a panel of three people rejected plans to develop Gozo’s Ħondoq Bay. Ivan Martin tracks the key developments in the long-running saga. 

The acquisition

Back in 1988, Gozo Prestige Hotels, which is owned by businessman Victor Bajada, acquired a stretch of land known as Ħondoq ir-Rummien from the Dominican Order for just €23,000 (Lm10,000).

The full sale price would rise to €1.5 million should the company be awarded a development permit for what it hoped would be a large yacht marina development. 

At the time, big business was eyeing stretches of Maltese coastline for developments such as the Portomaso marina, in St Julian’s.

The application

Nearly 15 years later, in July 2002, an application was filed to develop “a destination port” which was to include a hotel, yacht marina and a tourist village.

The entire project would eat up 103,000 square metres with a building footprint of more than 13,000 square metres.

The developers applied to build private roads, a marina promenade and a public wharf.

Some 15,000 square metres of agricultural land and another 23,000 square metres of protected garigue were to be dug up.

Paul Buttigieg, the mayor of Qala, has been campaigning against the development for two decades.Paul Buttigieg, the mayor of Qala, has been campaigning against the development for two decades.

Qala says ‘no’

The proposed project outraged many Gozitans who complained to the government and their local councils about the negative impact the mega-development would have on the area. 

An overwhelming 84.5 per cent of residents voted against what was at the time referred to as “the Qala Creek project”. 

Although the referendum was not legally binding, it was presented to MEPA (now PA) as part of a long list of objections. 

Reclassification

Four years after the company applied to develop the area, the then-Nationalist administration reclassified it.

The 2006 redrafting of what are known as local plans, widely blamed for opening the door for more construction in Malta and Gozo, had gone from designating Ħondoq as a farming site to being open for tourism and marine activities.

Over the years, the actual application itself was also tweaked. For instance, the developers proposed replacing a nearby water treatment facility with a multi-storey carpark.

The applicants had even submitted new plans that removed the bulk of the yacht marina. This despite the developers having previously argued that the project would not be viable without a marina.

Recommended for refusal

In August 2011, the Directorate of Environment Protection recommended that the Ħondoq project be shot down. 

In a detailed report, the directorate said the project would impact a coastal stretch and went against the principle of the PA’s guiding documents.  The proposal, the directorate said, went against the vision of Gozo as an “ecological island”.

Furthermore, although some development in the area was deemed acceptable to undo the damage caused by years of quarrying nearby, this project went well beyond that. 

Rejection and an appeal

After 14 years of controversy, the planning regulator finally came to a decision.

In June 2016, the PA unanimously voted to refuse the application in what was viewed as a victory for residents and activists opposed to the privatisation of the coastal area.

But that victory was short-lived: barely four months later, in October, the applicant appealed the decision. Gozo Prestige Hotels insisted their right to a fair hearing had been denied as they had only been given 15 days to prepare for the final hearing. 

The developers also called for the project to be sent back to assessment for new plans to be considered – replacement of the proposed marina with a lagoon and a significantly reduced built-up area.

Article Source: Times of Malta