Set for refusal, decision on massive Mġarr solar farm postponed

Decision postponed after PA’s planning commissioner requests solar farm application to be decided by Planning Authority board

The solar farm was proposed on an area the size of six football grounds on agricultural land in Mgarr
The solar farm was proposed on an area the size of six football grounds on agricultural land in Mgarr

A decision on a proposed solar farm on an area the size of six football grounds on agricultural land in Mġarr, has been postponed after the Planning Authority’s planning commission pushed up the decision to the Planning Authority board.

The planning commission takes decision on scores of minor permits on a daily basis, while the Planning Board normally takes decisions on larger projects.

The item was removed from the commission’s agenda just two days before the meeting scheduled on Friday.

The commission was expected to refuse the application after the case officer deemed it to be in breach of a number of policies, but on Wednesday two days before the scheduled meeting. “In view of the scale of the proposed development, the planning commission requested the un-delegation of the application and requested that this same application gets decided by the Planning Board,” a PA spokesperson said. No date has yet been given to the sitting.

The three-member commission chaired by Martin Camilleri is responsible for deciding on permits for applications outside development zones and inside urban conservation areas. Another commission chaired by Claude Mallia takes decisions on applications within the development zones. Normally decisions on major projects are taken by the 11-member Planning Board chaired by Vince Cassar. The Mġarr local council, which is opposing the application, would also have a vote on the board.

No clear guidelines exist to determine which cases are heard by the commission and which by the planning board. But it is not the first time that cases which were to be heard by the Planning Commission were deferred to the higher board.

But the postponement is unlikely to change the negative outcome because in June the same Planning Board had unanimously turned down a similar but smaller and less controversial application in Għajnsielem in a far less sensitive area.

Case officer recommends refusal

The ODZ site for the proposed solar farm consists of an area mostly characterised by a mix of cultivated agricultural land and abandoned fields and garigue, in an area known as Tar-Ragħad in Mġarr.

The case officer’s report states clearly that the proposal is in breach of the Solar Farm Policy, which bans solar farms on protected or sensitive locations and within areas of archaeological, cultural or scientific interest and limits such developments to disused quarries.

It also found the project to be in breach of the rural policy and the local plan.

The report refers to “erroneous references” made in a project development statement presented by the applicant, such as site being located within a ‘quarry’ or, that the proposed solar farm is intended to cover the ‘existing’ greenhouses and described the proposal as one which is objectionable in principle.

The project, proposed by Electrofix Ltd, is owned by Joseph Schembri and has caused uproar in Mġarr, attracting over 1,000 objections from the general public. Heritage Malta, the Superintendence for Cultural Heritage and the Environment and Resources Authority also objected to the development.

Heritage Malta had warned that “the proposed development may increase the risk of flooding at Ta’ Ħaġrat due increased rainwater run off resulting from the extensive soil-cover associated with the proposed greenhouses.”

Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia has also gone on record saying that the solar farm policy doesn’t permit their construction on agricultural land when MaltaToday had asked him for his views on this application.

Refusal of smaller solar farm in Gozo

The Planning Board has already pronounced itself against the approval of similar developments, deeming solar farms in the open countryside to be in breach of policy.

An application for the installation of three massive greenhouses partly covered by photovoltaic panels in the limits of Għajnsielem was rejected in June.

The application was also recommended for refusal by the case officer due to its negative visual impact on the landscape, and for being in breach of the Solar Farm Policy.

According to planning rules, any PV installation with a footprint larger than 1,000sq.m on ODZ land is regulated by the provisions of the 2017 solar farm policy, which only allows such installations on former quarry sites and excludes such development in the open countryside.

The proposal covered 9,971sq.m of land outside the development zone along Triq Mġarr in an area known as Ta’ Lelluxa. An appeal is still pending against this refusal.

In contrast to this refusal, back in 2015 the Planning Board had approved greenhouses with overlying solar panels on 11,000sq.m at Fiddien in Rabat.