A man trying to rehome retired racing horses was denied permits to build a rubble wall and a paddock at his farm on the limits of Mtarfa.
Keith Balzan Gera is currently caring for four rescued horses, a sheep, a pig and a coup of chickens on his farm located in a valley in an area classified as the Mdina Area of High Value Landscape.
“It was always a dream of mine to buy a horse but I never had a place to keep them,” Balzan Gera told Lovin Malta.
“I finally found and bought a field, cleaned up the place from all debris and rubbish and kept the stones to build a rubble wall. I made a gazebo to shelter the horses and put green netting around the enclosure so that the horses would not run away.”
Prior to his purchase, the land was used as a scrapyard. Balzan Gera transformed the area by removing debris and clearing the area of rubble to create a flat space for his stables.
In addition to the makeshift paddock, Balzan Gera also erected ancillary facilities including a hay store, a waste management facility and a water reservoir.
However, he built the structures not knowing they required permits. Subsequently, Balzan Gera’s structures were deemed illegal and he was handed an enforcement notice. Despite applying for development permission, Balzan Gera’s application was refused by the Planning Authority.
Amongst those who objected to the paddock project was the Ramblers Association of Malta, Moviment Graffitti, The Archaeological Society Malta and the Rabat Local Council, who objected on grounds that the valley was a buffer zone “relatively free from development” and reserved for agricultural use only.
Moreover, objections cited that the stables complex was located 100 metres within a development zone and is in close proximity to a watercourse in the valley.
“When they measure the distance from my farm to developed areas they do it with maps and don’t take into consideration the gradient which means I’m further than 100 metres from the apartments,” Balzan Gera said. “Also the watercourse is much farther than that.”
Objectors also noted that the proposed development would disrupt the rural, cultural and archaeological nature of the landscape and that Balzan Gera would be consuming 314 square metres of agricultural land to accommodate the proposed interventions.
“We are trying to protect the valley from any infrastructural changes,” Rabat Mayor Sandro Craus told Lovin Malta.
However, the refusal to grant development permission has revealed some inconsistencies in the way permits are handed out across Malta and Gozo.
“They told me I can’t build a rubble wall because I was close to Mdina,” Balzan Gera continued. “But just underneath the city is a rubble wall that is approximately one storey high,” he said.
Moreover, a neighbouring field, belonging to Claire Bonello, a prominent environmental lawyer and activist, was given permission to build a wooden gate, wire fence and a makeshift structure.
Bonello was also present at the Planning Authority meeting and also objected to Balzan Gera’s stables project.
“I don’t know why they make such a big issue about me keeping horses here. The irony is that I can’t have a place to spend time with my children and keep my horses. On the other hand, they approve permits for villas with pools in the countryside and in a valley,” he continued.
In December, it was revealed that construction magnate Joseph Portelli was granted a substantial amount to build a rubble wall at an agricultural holding in Nadur, Gozo. On the other hand, an application to build a one meter rubble was denied.
Activists have long flagged loopholes in planning laws which allow horse stables to be converted into rural housing. The Planning Authority was working on a reform to close these loopholes but halted the process in 2018 out of concern of the impact it would have on animal welfare and the design of the stables.
As it stands, Balzan Gera is currently housing his horses and livestock on his cousin’s field nearby until the issue is resolved. Until then, the horse rescuer intends to appeal the Planning Authority’s decision.
“I’m torn on the inside, I’m losing sleep over it,” he said.
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