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An 81-room hotel on Saqqaja Hill got its planning application approved today partly Outside Development Zone, despite fears that it could place Mdina’s fortification foundations in jeopardy.

The Planning Board approved the project with seven votes in favour and three against. They approved a non-executable permit for the site that will be confirmed if the applicant conducts the necessary geological and other studies on the area.

However, those who voted against the permit raised concerns that the studies should have been conducted before the permit was even considered.

The five-star hotel, which will replace the old Tattingers nightclub, will require deep excavation on a particularly vulnerable and historic site.

Architect Jesmond Mugliett gave a presentation about the project, arguing that this was a site worthy of Mdina’s entrance that was significantly better than the state of the current site.

“I can’t show too much detail on the geotechnical issues… but we will bind ourselves even to the cultural superintendence, to use method statements and monitoring so we will be giving due attention to the geotechnical issues related to archeological area,” Mugliett said.

He also said this project had been years in the making and all criticism was taken on board, with amendments made.

Mugliett said his team was warned not to negatively impact the bastions so as not to jeopardise Mdina’s application to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mugliett said they followed the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage’s direction.

In its objections, the Mdina local council had said this application was of “extreme concern” because any geological disturbance in the area would “definitely affect” the foundations of the bastions and cause damage to the existing buttressing system of the fortifications built by the Knights and put in place after the earthquake of 1693.

“The proposed development will create an immense precedent which will pave the way to further development in this area, putting at risk one of Malta’s most iconic landscapes of Mdina and Rabat, and having immense impacts on the surroundings which can never be reversed,” the architect appointed by the Mdina local council said, urging for the project to be “outright refused immediately”.

Despite many objections, the Planning Authority’s case officer had recommended the permit for approval, though it insisted that elements of the excavation should be kept as a “reserved matter” for further approval at a later stage.

Beyond sound pollution, traffic issues, height objections and the design itself, the major public concern is that excavation could cause a serious geological disturbance.

Mdina, which is built on clay, has had to be buttressed twice to avoid sloping. Last year, a part of the road on Saqqaja hill collapsed, raising further concerns about the geological fragility of the area.

In its reactions to the project, the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and the Culture Heritage Advisory Committee declared strong reservations about the development.

They noted the “extensive ground disturbance in an area of considerable archaeological potential, with a very high risk of disturbance or destruction of archaeological remains”. They also found the submitted Method Statement for excavation works to be “inadequate and lacking in necessary detail”.

A letter of objection by the Mdina and Rabat local councils insisted that the proposed development be subject to a thorough geotechnical survey due to the well-known critical geological formation of the terrain in that location.

“Furthermore, a study of the foundations of the nearby historical structures should be carried out by an independent team of experts to ensure that this proposed project will not affect the foundations of the bastions and the fortifications of Rabat and Mdina.”

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