The owner of a 500-year-old Tarxien villa has poured cold water on the Planning Authority’s recent restriction of the building heights around it, calling it a “bluffer zone” instead of a buffer zone.
The authority’s decision to reduce the maximum height limitations for proposed buildings around the pre-Great Siege Villa Barbaro was taken “to ensure that the spatial context of one of Malta’s oldest standing country houses is not compromised”.
But Marquis Tony Cremona-Barbaro, who has been fighting to protect the property’s context for over a decade, has no reason to celebrate.
He warned the public not to “swallow the propaganda”, showing, through a photomontage, what the 12.3-metre buffer height the PA announced would look like from the 17th-century villa’s garden, obliterating the vistas it was supposed to be protecting.
“Compared to the previously declared fake and anything-but-protective 15.4-metre buffer, a lowering to 12.3 metres may appear substantial but, in effect, still translates to a whopping four floors opposite a two-storey Grade 1 scheduled heritage monument in a predominantly two-storey streetscape context,” Cremona-Barbaro charged.
In its statement, the PA said the maximum building height within the buffer zone along Triq il-Knisja, Triq iż-Żejtun and Triq il-Kbira has been reduced by 3.1 metres and any proposed street façade could not exceed a height of 10 metres from street level.
But Cremona-Barbaro punched holes into what was effectively a ground-breaking move, saying he would be appealing the decision on the new buffer zone, which was supposed to put paid to his 10-year battle.
While the increased buffer area along Triq il-Knisja was a “happy outcome”, for Triq Sta Maria, it was “woefully inadequate” in both extent and height limitation.
The designation of a new buffer zone, where there was previously none, on the opposite side of Triq il-Knisja at a maximum height of 13.5 metres, down from the “disastrous” 17.5, is a “much welcomed and a major gain”, Cremona-Barbaro conceded.
Even the only existing apartment block at 15.4 metres towers above the garden’s two-storey pavilion, let alone any later developments at 17.5 metres, he highlighted.
The “big disappointment”, however, lay in the crucial area directly opposite Villa Barbaro on Triq iż-Żejtun, where Cremona-Barbaro said a “fake” buffer of a maximum height of 15.4 metres had been designated in 2020.
While the PA took the initiative to extend the Triq iż-Żejtun buffer to Triq Sta Maria, in front of its garden gate, the maximum height of 12.3 metres, which translates into four storeys, with a receded top floor, was still considered “highly detrimental” and inadequate at such a close distance.
Cremona-Barbaro maintained that, while not visible on the streets, the receded fourth floor was “no mitigating factor” as it could be seen from the historical gardens and would have a negative impact on the vistas the buffer height was supposed to protect.
He also insisted that the new Triq Sta Maria buffer should have been extended to cover a pending, controversial, five-storey development on Triq Dejma – and the adjoining properties on that road – which he “desperately” countered earlier this year as applications continue to rear their ugly heads around the historic property in the ongoing saga.
Claims of daily revenge
Cremona-Barbaro maintained the Planning Authority was exploiting the fact that the public, unfamiliar with technical details, would “rejoice at what, on the surface, is made to appear like a major concession”.
The appeal would be asking for a maximum height of 9.7 metres opposite Villa Barbaro instead of the “still detrimental” 12.3 metres on grounds that the predominant height of the streetscape is two storeys, the marquis said, adding that it was a “reasonable” request.
Villa Barbaro was originally scheduled by the Planning Authority in 1996 for its historical, architectural and aesthetic values. In 2009 and 2020, the scheduled area was enlarged to include the gardens and a buffer zone, which Cremona-Barbaro had decried as “deceitful”.
In the latest twist to his crusade, he expressed shock that the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage was the “most vociferous backer of a four-floor buffer”, describing its position as an “unbelievable volte-face”.
Cremona-Barbaro claims he has, meanwhile, been subjected to almost daily “revenge”, including finding pieces of the scheduling notice scattered on his doorstep surrounding a dead rat, acid was thrown on his car and attempts to poison his dog.
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