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Jerusalem's local planning commission has approved a major development project controlled by the family of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef that will eliminate a major green area in the city's Har Nof neighborhood - an area that the city's master plan designates as open space.

The approval for the $140 million, 100,000-square-meter project was given despite the fact that the city, which owns the property, has not signed off on the plan.

The planning commission also disregarded the fact that a few months ago, a senior municipality official sent a letter to the new neighborhood's developers - the Maor Yisrael nonprofit organization, which is controlled by the Shas leader's family - saying that the city was vehemently opposed to the plan and would not agree to any development that would eliminate the open spaces owned by the city.

According to the plan approved by the commission, a new residential area will be built on the northern side of the main park in Har Nof. It will comprise 200 apartments in four to six buildings, each seven to nine stories tall. An earlier plan had called for 300 flats in six buildings 11 to 14 stories tall. In addition to the apartment complex, the plan calls for construction of a beit midrash (study hall), synagogue and yeshiva. The remaining 50 dunams of park area would also be developed. Most of the area now is an empty field, with a small part designated as a playground.

The local planning commission's approval is essentially is a recommendation to the District Planning Commission, which is the major planning agency in this case. Once the district commission gives its approval, construction can begin.

According to Pepe Allo, a Jerusalem city councillor who opposes the plan, the area remaining for a park is very limited. "They took the best parkland and left over a tiny area that will be very difficult to develop," said Allo. He said the plan came up in the local planning commission two weeks ago, but no debate was held because the city's signature was missing on the plan. At that session, however, the commission did agree in principle to provide the land, as long as the developers made sure to develop community-wide facilities. That approval in principle, says Allo, paved the way for the commission to okay the planned construction.

The Har Nof community administration is also opposed to the project. In a letter sent Sunday to the chairman of the planning commission, the administration's officers said the municipality must keep its promises to the neighborhood and not fund the area's cultural needs by selling off parkland that serves as the neighborhood's lungs, "staining it with a block of crowded apartments."

The Union for Environmental Defense has stated that it will challenge the plan once it is deposited with the district commission. The green organization says that the plan is an attempt by the city to avoid spending money on public spaces.

City Hall issued a statement saying that "the city engineer's recommendation said the plan must be signed by the city. In a session of the local planning council, the city officer in charge of city property said that the lack of a signature is a technical matter and that the plan should be regarded as signed. He is the one authorized to sign plans that involve city property."

"The engineer insisted that before any debate on any specific plan, there should be a debate on the issue of how open areas can be developed for public use," the statement continued. "The plan was brought for discussion only after the local commission accepted that principle, out of a general, responsible perspective of the benefit of the entire public.

"There is only one agency authorized by law to approve construction projects in Jerusalem - the Jerusalem Planning Commission - and it can only do so after the plans have been reviewed by the city engineer and the other relevant city agencies for the specific plan."