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Artist loses battle against development next door

Isabelle Borg Photo: Jason Borg

Isabelle Borg Photo: Jason Borg

Property applications involving historical, cultural and natural heritage should be accompanied by reliable studies that assess their value, so as to avoid issuing permits that should possibly have been declined, the planning authority’s auditor has recommended.

He was referring to a permit to demolish a building in Floriana, which, given the circumstances of the case, “maybe should not have been issued”.

The building in Sir Luigi Preziosi Square is located next to the residence of artist Isabelle Borg, who had lodged a complaint about its proposed development into a block of apartments and garages.

In his report on the case, the auditor, Joe Falzon, has concluded that her complaint could not be sustained even though the approved applications were not in line with policy.

He highlighted the fact that there had not been a proper study on the heritage value of the building and when the required information became available to the Development Control Commission, “the permit had been issued”.

Mr Falzon added: “It is worrying that applications for buildings of historical and cultural value are not accompanied by the real information necessary. In some cases, this is obvious but in others, it is not. The expert reports should also be assessed by Mepa.”

The situation has set a dangerous precedent for development in the area, the auditor continued.

In the case of the application to develop garages and residential units, the DCC “ignored the advice of the properly constituted bodies on the heritage value of the building,” his report states.

Once the outline permit had been approved, the development application Ms Borg had contested could not be refused, Mr Falzon concluded.

The auditor investigated the development on a request made by Ms Borg as soon as the permit was approved in February.

Having followed and fought the looming construction on grounds of health and heritage concerns for about two decades, she had asked for a proper inquiry into how “what was considered a listed building on a protected site, worth preserving from the historical point of view, had been overlooked”.

Ms Borg claimed her home would be buried in dust when the neighbouring building was demolished, while light and air would be blocked out when it was reconstructed. In a way, she has been vindicated.

The report states that “in the case of these applications, this process has been carried out in a totally unacceptable way... Suffice it to say that those responsible did not realise the importance of their actions”.

Mr Falzon goes on to say: “It is not clear how the DCC concluded that it was more competent than the Museums Department and the Heritage Advisory Committee in judging the architectural and historical value of the building, but this fact renders superfluous recommendations of properly constituted bodies.”

Ms Borg, a university lecturer, suffers from idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, a degenerative lung disease she said could only be exacerbated by the dust and pollutants that resulted from demolition, excavation and ­construction. Confined to her bedroom, she is permanently wired up to an oxygen concentrator.

The permit allowed for the building across the enclosed yard to be torn down only for another to loom larger and closer to Ms Borg’s windows, practically burying her in her house. It meant she would have to seal them off and live in artificial light.

But the developer, who said he was only rehabilitating his property – his home of 34 years – denied his project would in any way negatively affect the artist’s lifestyle.

Ms Borg noted that the auditor’s report “criticises Mepa harshly for taking a particular stand, without correcting mistakes made. But any comment of mine is superfluous at this point,” she added.

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