BirdLife Malta today expressed its serious concern about the possibility that the area surrounding its Simar Nature Reserve in Xemxija could be subject to building development which would have a negative impact on the habitats which make the reserve a protected bird sanctuary and a unique Natura 2000 site.
The area next to the reserve is characterised by two-storey houses which have however been allocated the possibility to increase to 4 floors in the North West local Plan of 2006. To date most of these developments have not materialised, however there is now a serious concern of the area being fully developed in the near future with a risk of the permitted building height to be higher than 4 floors. This may happen in relation to other developments in the area such as hotels which are allowed even higher floors according to specific policies for the site.
Although this particular area is not targeted for high-rise development, what is being proposed seems to be in line with other developments being permitted over the islands as part of a high-rise policy which is currently under fire due to several contentious proposals such as the 38-storey tower being proposed in the heart of Sliema and the four-tower development rising up to 20 storeys in Imrieħel.
BirdLife Malta would like to remind the authorities that Simar Nature Reserve sits within a designated Natura 2000 site which incorporates within it, parts of the Pwales Valley and Miżieb. The northern border of the reserve is also the border of the Natura 2000 site which tapers around a development zone that incorporates Xemxija. Overall, the whole area gains from the designations of a Special Area of Conservation for its habitats and a Special Protection Area for its birds apart from being an area of ecological importance and a bird sanctuary.
In this regard we urge the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) and the Planning Authority (PA) to take an immediate position that this would not be allowed due to the sensitive nature of the Natura 2000 site of Simar. BirdLife Malta insists that all Natura 2000 sites should be protected at all costs especially since Malta has the highest building density in the European Union.
The area where the Simar Nature Reserve stands today was up till the 1980s used as a dump. Back then, the saline marshland was in a very poor condition, the original habitat was completely degraded and only small remnants of it remained.
The site was converted into a wetland reserve in 1992 by BirdLife Malta. The area now consists of managed wetland habitat of saline marshland and coastal lagoons, an overall rare habitat for the Maltese Islands thanks to which several birds are now breeding exclusively at Simar.
In 2014, MEPA issued and approved a management plan for the Simar area which defines development as exerting pressure on the ecology of the site management. The same plan also envisages an expansion of the reserve, in line with a North West Local Plan policy which also suggests an expansion of the existing nature reserve.
It is important that the nature reserve as well as the Natura 2000 site mantain a buffer area to the nature reserve. This would guarantee minimal impact on the priority habitats of the area, as well as maintain the necessary conditions that make the site a bird sanctuary.
Apart from the immediate impact of construction and use of heavy machinery on the potential of the reserve, other long term concerns from more intensive development of the surrounding area next to the reserve include noise and light pollution generated from buildings impinging on the nature reserve, and heavier traffic flow due to more residents in the area.