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The High Court of Justice yesterday struck down a controversial real estate development plan near the western Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot, after residents waged a legal and public campaign against the project.

The development, part of what is known as the "Safdie plan" after architect Moshe Safdie, included constructing over 20,000 housing units on open areas covering 26,600 dunams (some 6,600 acres) west of the city on natural and planted forests near Ramot. The plan had come under attack by environmental groups.

Ramot residents, backed by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), filed an objection on the grounds that the construction would seriously damage the environment. Their attorney, Reuven Yehoshua, took the unusual step of adding the fallow deer native to the Jerusalem hills to the list of petitioners, as potentially endangered fauna.

Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch accepted the petitioners' claim that a subcommittee of the National Planning and Construction Council had exceeded its authority when it approved the plan. The subcommittee also approved rezoning land defined as natural forest for housing, without going through the required procedures, she ruled.

The subcommittee also failed to examine the repercussions that construction would have on the forest terrain, despite the great importance of preserving such areas, Beinisch wrote in her verdict.

The plan created a controversy among environmental groups in Jerusalem. Ramot residents objected to the plan, but SPNI, despite joining the petition, did not oppose it and after other parts of the Safdie plan were revoked, SPNI agreed to cooperate with the Jerusalem municipality to locate alternative land reserves for construction, including Mizpe Naftoach.

Commenting on the High Court decision, Ramot petitioner attorney Rahel Adam said: "We know the city may try to approve the plan again, but it will take a long time. We will use that time to draw up a plan to turn the area into an urban nature park."

Adam criticized SPNI and said that "recently that organization has been dealing more with city planning than nature preservation." Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski decided to "freeze" the controversial Safdie plan in November 2006, replacing it with an equally disputed plan advancing construction in neighborhoods beyond the Green Line. Lupolianski tried to persuade green groups to support the alternative plan in exchange for shelving the Safdie plan, which was intended to expand Jerusalem's built-up area considerably, eventually adding 47,000 housing units by 2020.