PA thwarts Mark Gaffarena’s zoo ambitions on illegal villa grounds

Planning Authority orthophotos highlighting the transformation of Mark Gaffarena's Żebbuġ plot from a cultivated field into an illegally-built villa.

Controversial property developer Mark Gaffarena, whose collusion with Lands Department officials had once forced the resignation of then-Parliamentary Secretary Michael Falzon, has been refused plans to build a zoo on a Żebbuġ ODZ plot where he had illegally built a villa.

A longstanding enforcement notice suggests that Gaffarena had already started works on his personal menagerie years ago.

Gaffarena sought a questionable arrangement in a bid to sweeten the deal: the demolition of another structure in Mqabba, with the plans for the “demolished area” to be used to approve a project on the illegally-built Żebbuġ site. But this reasoning failed to impress MEPA, whose planning commission rejected both plans unanimously.

It remains to be seen whether the PA’s decision will be appealed: or even respected, in light of the rampant illegalities already present on the site.

History of a scandal

Gaffarena had twice acquired a quarter share of a Valletta property which hosts the Building Industry Consultative Council, and each time this was quickly expropriated by the government, yielding Gaffarena with substantial profits. The government made no effort to acquire the half held by other owners.

An investigation by the National Audit Office found that there had been collusion between Gaffarena and Lands Department officials, and the expropriation was ultimately rescinded by the Courts.

Then-PM Joseph Muscat was the minister directly responsible for the department at the time, but Falzon was the parliamentary secretary responsible for lands within his office, and he alone took the fall on January 2016. However, the scandal’s impact on Falzon’s political career was brief, as he was appointed Family Minister after the 2017 election, a position he holds to this day.

Enforcement notice issued in 2008, daily fines still due

The scandal was far from the only controversy surrounding Gaffarena, however, and the Żebbuġ plot in question is a case in point. The plot, which faces 12 May Street, initially contained just a small agricultural structure before Gaffarena converted it into a villa around 2008. The PA’s own imagery shows the extensive construction works being carried out in 2008.

That same year, the authority issued an enforcement notice concerning the “extension to an existing room, another structure and excavations without permit,” for which no permission was ever sought.

Years later, the notice was later updated with a more detailed description, which highlighted that the site had changed to a recreational or residential one.  Additionally, the PA flagged the construction of metal cages on the back and front of the site and some ancillary structures, suggesting that Gaffarena forged ahead with his plans for a zoo before actually seeking permission for one.

The villa had been sealed off by the authority in 2016.

In light of Gaffarena’s development application, enforcement action had been suspended by the authority. But daily fines – as well as the cost of the authority’s direct action – had been imposed, and PA confirmed that Gaffarena is yet to pay the amounts due.

Changes of plans

Back in 2007, Gaffarena had sought an outline permit for the construction of stables on site, a permit which was granted a year later. But in light of the illegalities on site, a full application was turned down.

Only in 2018, through his architect Ruben Sciortino, did he apply for the “sanctioning of change of use from stables to residence and zoo” (PA 1133/18).

Later that year, in an apparent bid to sweeten the deal, Gaffarena applied for the “demolition of existing building for the demolished area to be used in PA 1133/18,” in a site on Ħal Farruġ Road in the limits of Mqabba. The site in question is mostly an overgrown field, but does include three small structures.

But ultimately, the case officer assigned recommended refusal in both cases, and the PA followed suit.