The Mediterranean coast's not yet clear, but it's a start
Planners are showing that they're beginning to understand the importance of preserving Israel's beaches, even though there are still battles to be waged.
The battle to protect the Mediterranean beaches from development continues to be at the forefront of environmental activity in Israel, and is even having an impact on planning and construction committees. That influence can be seen in two recent decisions related to beaches in the Carmel area. These decisions show that planning institutions are at least beginning to understand the importance of preserving beaches, as well as the need to reconsider construction plans for coastal areas.
The decisions are related to plans for the areas around the Habonim and Nahsholim Beaches, both considered especially unique and beautiful. The Haifa District Planning and Construction Committee voted on plans for both beaches a few weeks ago.
The original plans for Habonim Beach had been prepared by architect Eran Mebel, at the request of the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council and the Government Tourism Corporation. The beach gets some 200,000 visitors a year, and officials wanted to build facilities and to organize services that would be at the visitors' disposal, while preserving the natural features and landscape of the coastal area.
The plan proposed an expansion of the nature reserve at Habonim Beach, but also proposed turning the northern part of the area into an official swimming beach. This would mean a promenade and parking lots would be constructed near the swimming area, as would two service centers that would include a cafe and a camping ground.
Although the plans were already approved by various planning committees and institutions, Haifa's Planning and Construction Committee appointed architect Michal Halevy to look into the plan and the many objections of area residents and environmental activists. Halevy submitted a report to the committee that recommended it reconsider many of its plans.
Among her recommendations she suggested that the northern area not be developed into an official bathing beach with a lifeguard’s station, which she said would harm the natural beauty of the area. The planning committee agreed, as Halevy had recommended, to reduce the width of the promenade to be built on the beach and to issue a permit for a kiosk without seating on the northern beach, rather than a cafe, as initially proposed. It also reduced the area of other structures, and voted that generators could not be operated in the camping area.
On the other hand, the committee is still going ahead with its plans to turn the northern part of Habonim Beach into an official swimming area with a lifeguard station. The decision explains: "The committee believes that it is not right to allow a large number of vacationers to come to the beach, the nature preserve and the adjacent complex for overnight stays without providing a minimal solution for their safety, health and welfare."
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Environmental Protection Ministry have already requested that the decision be reconsidered, because of the harm it could pose to the natural beach. They also say that even if the kiosk and the lifeguard station are ultimately approved, they should be portable and easily disassembled, so that they can be removed at the end of the swimming season.
Another decision of the planning committee, which is particularly courageous, is related to a plan to build a vacation village near Nahsholim Beach. The plan, initiated by the Israel Lands Administration, allows for the construction of a village with 500 guest rooms. It has already gotten a green light from the National Planning and Building Council, which determined that its economic and social advantages exceed its disadvantages, including possible damage to the environment.
But not everyone was as excited by the advantages. The vacation village plan has met with 1,500 objections, and environmental activists have been waging a public battle against it. They even set up protest tents on the adjacent beach. Objectors claim that construction of such a complex could harm an area that is unique in terms of its landscape and that includes important archaeological sites. Again, Levy submitted an alternative plan.
In the end, the planning committee accepted Levy's recommendation not to allow for the construction of the vacation village. She argued that the space under debate had unique natural resources that should be preserved. She noted that it also has an important archaeological site that is a part of the old city of Dor.
One paragraph in the committee's decision is worth citing, because it reflects the current attitude of planning authorities toward the beaches: "As a result of the large number of objections, there was a renewed and updated examination of the plan's conformity to the national planning policy that favors a strengthening of urban areas while preserving rural areas. This examination led to the conclusion that there should be a review of the balance between the economic advantages of the plan and the harm to the contiguity of open areas.
"The committee believes that in this case the consideration of preserving the open areas for the benefit of the public supersedes the economic consideration, and that there are other alternatives in which it is possible to build accommodations like those proposed by the plan."
It should be emphasized that the decisions of the Haifa District Planning and Construction Committee are expected to encounter several tests. The ILA will not easily give up on its vacation village, and is likely to demand another debate in the National Planning and Construction Council.
As far as Habonim Beach is concerned, its fate will largely be decided by the way in which it is managed. Especially important will be how much attention is paid to keeping it clean, whether environmental blights such as all-terrain vehicles will be allowed to park at the site, and whether the number of visitors will be regulated.
There are several other beaches around the country facing various threats from construction plans. In Tel Aviv, a lovely gravel cliff in the north of the city is in danger as a result of plans to build parking lots in the area. In Herzliya, there is a fear that the narrow strip of sand on the southern swimmer’s beach will shrink even further as a result of the municipality's plan to build a promenade there.
Although these are not real estate plans that would see the transfer of public beach areas into private hands, any damage to the beaches is significant in a country where a large part of the coast has already been sacrificed to civil and defense infrastructure installations, marinas and urban construction.