The Planning Authority had initially refused a planning application for the relocation of a fuel station (currently operating from Mosta) to Salina along the coast road. In addition, the proposal included ‘a car wash area and retail facilities’.
In its refusal decision, the Planning Board observed that the proposed development ran counter to Rural Objective 4 of the Strategic Plan for Environment and Development (SPED) which aims ‘to protect and enhance the positive qualities of the landscape and the traditional components of the rural landscape.’
In reaction, the applicant filed an appeal with the Environment and Planning Review Tribunal. In his submissions, the applicant made the following observations:
1. A vote was taken by the Planning Board after deliberations were made in private upon insistence of the chairperson;
2. The minutes of the ‘private meeting’ were not made available to the applicant despite repeated requests;
3. Planning decisions need to be supported by detailed reasons on the basis of which a decision is subsequently taken;
4. Rural Objective 4 was not applicable to the site under review;
5. More so, the application met the requirements of a specific policy, in this case the Fuel Station Policy of April 2015. Hence, the board was wrong to rely on a generic policy. In other words, the board could not disregard the Fuel Station Policy and turn down a planning application by simply stating that ‘the proposal would compromise the protection and enhancement of the positive qualities of the landscape and the traditional components of the rural landscape’.
In reply, the case officer representing the Authority referred to paragraphs 9 and 10 of Article 10 of Schedule 1 of Act X of 2010, which states that ‘the meetings of the Authority shall be open to the public, and the Authority shall allow the applicant and his representative, or any one of them, and registered third party objectors to make submissions on any matter under consideration.’ Nevertheless, the same Article provides that ‘at the request of any member of the Authority, the deliberations of the Authority shall be held in private but every vote shall be conducted in public.’
As to the merits of the case, the officer contended that the proposed station was to be relocated in a Category 2 area where ‘the only form of development that was allowed is residential development, agricultural buildings and retail outlets less than 50 square metres in order to protect and enhance the Rural Characteristics of the Area.’
In the circumstances, according to the officer, ‘the proposed fuel station was to replace two farmhouses which existed pre-1967 and are a typical example of vernacular architecture in a rural setting.’
Even more so, the applicant’s site featured ‘a number of protected trees contributing positively to the quality of the landscape’, which trees ‘were to be uprooted resulting in further degradation of the landscape.’ Against this background, the case officer insisted that the SPED objectives should take precedence over the Fuel Station Policy.
In its assessment, the Tribunal immediately observed that the Planning Board had every right to conduct deliberations behind closed doors as long as the planning application was subsequently decided in public.
Nevertheless, the Tribunal noted that in giving its refusal, the board relied on Rural Objective 4 without giving adequate explanation. Moreover, the Planning Board had failed to comment on the contents of the directorate’s report, which inter alia made reference to other specific policies.
For this reason, the Tribunal held that the application should be reassessed by the board.