Israeli Government Plan Allocates More Rural Land for Urban Development

Opponents argue that hundreds of thousands of units could be built in existing cities, if infrastructure and transportation were upgraded.

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The government planning subcommittee on Tuesday will be asked to approve changes in the national development master plan that would allow substantial construction in areas previously zoned as open space. The proposals will be presented by the Interior Ministry’s planning chief.

The recommendations are part of the government’s efforts to free-up land for residential construction, in order to increase the supply of housing in the future and bring down prices.

However, environmental groups have warned of serious risk to Israel’s remaining open spaces, if the plan goes through, as well as a declining ability to maintain older center-city neighborhoods.

If the changes are approved, they will be brought before the National Planning and Building Council as early as next week for approval, and thereafter to the cabinet.

The new plan includes changes to the master plan, known by its Hebrew acronym Tama 35, which until now has maintained a strict separation between urban and rural land, so as to utilize urban land reserves efficiently and protect the contiguity of open spaces outside the cities. The original focus of Tama 35 was mainly on urban expansion in metropolitan Haifa and Be’er Sheva and their hinterlands.

One key change would permit expansion of urban communities into rural zones, after planning institutions have determined that there is no more room to expand in the city itself.

Another recommendation would invest local authorities with more powers to approve new local urban housing projects than had been previously allowed.

If approved, the changes could mean the expansion of cities into deserted army camps, agricultural zones and areas defined as “rural landscape zones” in the center of the country.

“Most of the objections to the changes that we submitted together with the Union for Environmental Defense were rejected, unfortunately," said Itamar Ben-David, director of planning issues for the Society of the Protection of Nature in Israel. "What is proposed here encourages wasteful use of land resources and does not encourage urban renewal."

In addition to freeing up the land, the government is also encouraging the establishment of planning institutions that can plan new housing quickly and get around existing planning bodies.

According to Merhav, an NGO that promotes sustainable urban planning, there is room for the construction of hundreds of thousands of housing units in existing cities, if infrastructure is renewed and city center accessibility improved. The proposal to be presented today makes almost no mention of urban renewal, other than a general statement that public transportation should be improved and urban land used efficiently.

The Knesset Interior and Environmental Committee yesterday approved on its first reading a bill that would expand the special planning committees that can expedite approval of construction plans for housing.

One such committee, working in the Jerusalem area, recently approved a plan for housing in an area near Mevasseret Tzion that had previously been planned as a park. The Union for Environmental Defense has submitted an objection to the plan, citing damage to valuable open space and land with high value environmentally and scenically. The decision had been made without taking alternatives into consideration and even before the master plan for Mevasseret had been updated, the union said.

This is the one of the first cases in which a special planning committee has approved rezoning of an area based on the expanded powers such committees received to approve projects that go against the regular district planning and building committees.

Housing construction in Haifa.Credit: Hagai Frid

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