Sharon Park - Nir Kafri - 09022012
Agricultural land near the Sharon Park could be rezoned for construction. Photo by Nir Kafri
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The building and planning reforms that the government began to push two years ago are approaching their final stages. Within a few weeks a joint panel of the Knesset Economic Affairs Committee and Internal Affairs and Environment Committee will vote on provisions of a new law, before bringing it to the plenum for its second and third readings.

It is still not known what changes, if any, will be made in the current version of the bill.

The goal of the law, according to the government, is to expedite the planning process and the granting of building permits. This will be done by applying the principle of "one plan in one committee," according to which proposed building plans will be debated and authorized by a single planning committee.

It is unclear exactly how the planning process may be shortened by legal means, but it is quite clear that natural resources and open spaces in Israel are likely to pay a high price, in the absence of supervision by national and regional planning committees. Here are a few of the highly significant changes included in the proposed new law:

Cancelling district master plans and in their place, substituting more general ones. Regional plans are a major stage of planning that determines whether places may be used for building or marked for preservation. These plans are based on an analysis of the value of nature and the environment to the area. The general plans that will replace them will be prepared by local planning committees, one for each jurisdiction over which they have authority.

According to the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel's Open Landscape Institute, there is genuine concern that these plans will not be based on an examination of the environment. They will allow a great deal more flexibility in allotting larger spaces for building to developers and real estate interests, which is unnecessary as permission has already been granted for a lot of future building by the master plans that are to be discontinued.

A situation may come about in which general plans cause damage to forests, parks and nature reserves. For example, it is possible that construction will be authorized on the hills west of Jerusalem or the in the Ariel Sharon Park, where no plans have been approved to this day.

Changes in the methods of conducting environmental impact assessments. Such an assessment is a professional evaluation of the environmental implications of a building plan which every developer is required to conduct. There is some criticism about the effectiveness of these reviews, but there is no doubt that they are vital tools accepted in all developed countries. The new law reduces the influence of bodies like the Environmental Protection Ministry in determining which situations require the preparation of such a report, as well as the guidelines given to the assessors. This means that initiators of plans for the paving of roads or the construction of factories will not have to check all the environmental aspects of the projects they want to advance.

Establishing special committees to approve plans for new infrastructure on a faster track. Public opposition would have to be presented to these committees within 30 days, and there is no appeal process. In addition, it is possible to declare "special planning zones" for which the infrastructure committee may approve plans, which neutralizes the ability of the public or local government to make its voices heard. In practice, this is a track that conveniently authorizes infrastructure that is likely to cause large-scale destruction of open spaces.

Revoking the current definition of "agricultural use." In contrast to the law currently in force, the new law does not offer a clear definition of the agricultural use of land, although the current law does not completely prevent other uses - as may be seen in the packed shopping centers erected on agricultural land near Kibbutz Shefayim.

According to Iris Han of SPNI' Open Landscape Institute, without a clear definition about what it is permissible to build on agricultural land, there is genuine concern that stores and shopping centers will be authorized by claiming that their merchandise is connected to agricultural activity.

Exploiting the possibilities

Worry over the implications of the new law only increases upon reading the recent report on obstruction to planning and building by a public committee commissioned by the interior minister. The committee, headed by Prof. Amir Barnea, first noted that the existing planning and building system is not responsible for the lack of housing in the country. The report says that many delays in carrying out plans are connected to developers' difficulties in raising money.

The committee report included an important warning that bears directly on the new law. "We share the view that planning must be of high quality despite the acute housing shortage. And so there is a need for long-range approaches that take social and environmental factors into account. We believe that apparently easy solutions, such as the freeing up of agricultural land for building purposes, are not the best solutions even in the short run, and certainly not before exploiting all the possibilities of development and increasing density in urban and built-up areas."