Surprise, surprise: commercial uses planned in Bidnija’s ‘2-storey sheep farm’

Photos submitted as part of PA/5895/22; satellite imagery (showing farm still under construction) from Google Earth.

Tista’ taqra bil-

Just two years ago, the authorities defended the granting of a controversial permit for a huge sheep farm in a previously-undeveloped area of ​​Bidnija, insisting on the legitimacy of a project which appeared to resemble a commercial concern.

But critics of the project appear to have been vindicated as a company led by the architect behind the huge structure – but not the registered sheep farmer fronting the original development application – has now applied to add multiple commercial uses on site, including the addition of two guest rooms.

The approval of the sheep farm (PA/7946/18) in Wied tal-Ħżejjen had flown under the radar, with no objections being made to a development which obtained the necessary development permit in February 2019.

But as the large complex in the middle of a previously largely-untouched valley started to emerge in the following year, critics – including the Nationalist Party’s spokesperson on the environment at the time, David Thake – argued that there appeared to be ulterior motives behind the development. The structure’s height and its architectural features suggested that the complex would be an agritourism concern, rather than a functional sheep farm.

The legitimacy of the project had been defended by then-Environment Minister Aaron Farrugia, who dismissed any concerns about the structure’s appearance, and a Planning Authority spokesperson had told the Times of Malta that no planning applications were submitted to convert the site into an agritourism complex .

Business upstairs, sheep in the basement

But it’s taken just two years for that planning application to come: PA/5895/22 was submitted on 22 May, and is scheduled for publication on Wednesday’s edition of the Government Gazette after finalizing a screening process. And the registered sheep farmer who had applied to build the farm, Jason Vella, is not involved in this application.

This time round, the application was made by notary public Peter Carbonaro on behalf of Bidnija Farming Enterprise Ltd, a company registered just two weeks before the application was made. In its application, the company declared that it is not the owner of the site, but authorized to carry out the works in agreement with the actual owner.

Carbonaro and architect Konrad Bezzina – who oversaw the original sheep farm and who remains the architect behind the new proposals, are the company’s two directors and legal representatives; Bezzina is listed as its sole shareholder. There is no indication that either has opted for a more bucolic lifestyle and taken up sheep farming.

Conveniently, as the application itself makes clear, a project which critics insisted had ulterior motives makes it possible for structural works and additions to be “kept to a minimum in this particular proposal,” as Bezzina himself highlights in his covering letter, to accommodate the commercial uses being envisioned.

In 2020, Minister Farrugia had insisted that the farm was a single-floor farm whose large height was in line with similar farms, and that the project’s location on a slope made it appear higher than it was.

But the revised plans highlight that the applicants now intend to make full use of the building’s height to carve out a second floor which houses commercial uses include a retail outlet, an area for tasting, “educational agri-experience areas,” a retail outlet, as well as a farmer’s residence. The building’s generous height even allowed for the creation of an “intermediate floor” in which two guestrooms and a breakfast/dining area are planned.

Parking spaces are also set to be added for the benefit of the visitors making use of what had once been a largely-pristine valley.

And for all the justifications of the building’s height – including by Minister Farrugia – the plans suggest that a single-floor structure would have sufficed for the sheep: that is all they will be allocated if the PA’s blessing arrives.

The aim of the project, Bezzina insisted, is “mainly to consolidate the use and designation of the approved sheep farm expanding it into farm diversification, with the main aim of promoting the local farming industry, both locally and internationally.”

Objector decries ‘false declaration’ behind original permit

In what is likely to be the first in a series of objections to the project, an individual has already registered an objection in which they insist that the original permit was obtained under false pretences.

“I am strongly objecting to this application on the basis that the original applicant of the original permit was only being used just to get the permit to construct the building since he is a livestock breeding farmer,” the objector wrote. “Now this supposed farmer is nowhere to be seen in this application.”

The objector also questioned how the farmer’s old premises were not decommissioned even though he had been granted a new farm to work in.

It remains to be seen, of course, whether these plans will be deemed acceptable to the Planning Authority – or the government for that matter. But as the apparent bait-and-switch by the developers had made their previous defense of the project appear ridiculous in hindsight, one can only ask whether a sheep farmer had pulled the wool over their eyes.


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