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Historic battery at risk as legal battle drags on

The dilapidated coastal battery in Qbajjar, which is a frequent target for vandals. Photos: Marlon George

The dilapidated coastal battery in Qbajjar, which is a frequent target for vandals. Photos: Marlon George

Gozo could lose part of its heritage unless the authorities step in to save an 18th-century coastal battery in Qbajjar Bay that dates to the time of the Knights of St John.

The military structure, which is in a poor state, has been at the heart of a legal battle since 2007 between the Land Department and Rook Limited, a private company which used to run a restaurant there.

Built in 1715 and designed by Jacques de Camus d’Arginy and Bernard de Fontet, the battery is fully exposed to the elements. It has been left dilapidated for years and vandalised frequently.

Nicky Saliba, the mayor of Żebbuġ, which incorporates Marsalforn and Qbajjar, said that the local council received complaints on the matter regularly. Venting his frustration, he said the council’s only option was to pile pressure on the authorities to take action before it was too late, as the council did not own the property.

In 1978, the government leased the battery to Francis Vella for 25 years. Three years later, the emphyteusis was transferred to Rook Limited, which is owned by brothers George and Joseph Said and Saviour Cremona.

The roots of the legal dispute date to February 2003, when the lease expired. The owners claimed they were allowed to keep operating the restaurant after this deadline and that they had invested heavily in its maintenance.

The council’s only option is to pile pressure on the authorities to take action before it is too late

In 2007, the Land Department issued an eviction order on the grounds that the lease had expired, while noting that the tenants had allowed the structure to deter-iorate. The decision followed a request by the Cultural Superintendence, which had been asked by NGO Din l-Art Ħelwa for permission to take over the battery, restore it and open it to the public.

But Rook Ltd refused to vacate the property and initiated court proceedings.

Sources told this newspaper that the government was exploring the possibility of an out-of-court settlement and possibly giving a new lease to the company.

Questions sent to the Planning Parliamentary Secretariat and the Gozo Ministry about the measures being taken to pre-serve the fortification, as well as about the legal aspects of the case, had not been answered by the time of writing.

Mr Cremona of Rook Ltd declined to comment over the phone, even when asked about the stage of court proceedings.

In its last financial statements, for 2014, Rook, whose principal activity is running a snack bar in summer, declared it had not traded during the year under review and made a loss before tax of €990.

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