Israel May Change Master Plan to Expand Construction in Central 'Green Lung'

Proposed changes will be presented Tuesday to the National Planning and Building Council.

The government is seeking to increase residential construction in the center of the country in what they say is an effort to ease the housing shortage, in the face of opponents who say the move would come at the expense of construction in the north and south and reduce the amount of green areas in the most densely populated part of the country.

The proposed changes will be presented on Tuesday to the National Planning and Building Council. Regional council officials have requested a meeting with the Interior Ministry director general, Amram Kalaji, and the national planning council is not expected to issue a decision immediately.

The plan is being promoted by the Interior Ministry's planning directorate and would require a change in the existing national master plan. Opponents include regional councils, environmental groups and the Environmental Protection Ministry.

Shmuel Rifman, head of the Ramat Negev regional council and chairman of the Union of Local Authorities in Israel, is vehemently opposed to the change. "As you know, any further construction in the center of Israel is a death blow to the efforts to development the Negev, the Galilee and other areas of the periphery," Rifman said in a letter to Interior Minister Eli Yishai. "Every new building in Tel Aviv, Netanya or Rishon Letzion is one less building in Be'er Sheva, Afula or Tiberias."

Rifman continued: "The entire center of Israel will be clothed in concrete and cement, and children in the center will lose all contact with nature. If the governments continue to build in their backyard, how will the children know anything about butterflies, flowers, trees and birds? We shall make ourselves heard until this change is rejected. We will not allow you to destroy the State of Israel in favor of political gain."

The Interior Ministry said its proposal has "the goal of finding solutions for the physical planning in Israel" and is in accordance with the recommendations of the Trajtenberg report on inequality in Israel. "A further statement will be published after the council reaches its decision," the ministry said.

Seven years ago, the Sharon government approved National Master Plan 35, the which determines which areas will be designated for development and which will remain protected. The plan divided Israel into several different "webs," some of which classified as urban, with future building planned adjacent to the cities and towns, while many of the other areas were slated to remain undeveloped.

Changing the master plan would allow for significant expansion of construction areas in the center of the country. Urban areas in the north would also be expanded under the revised plan.

According to the plan, permits will be granted to some plans that had previously been rejected. Urban areas will be allowed to expand by some 20 percent to areas previously defined as agricultural land or rural areas.

In practice, the move will enable further construction in agricultural areas around Kfar Sava, Ra'anana, Rehovot and Netanya. Construction is prohibited in these areas under the existing master plan.

Moreover, some construction will be permitted in areas defined as "urban holiday areas." Though not natural reserves, these have enjoyed a special protected status, since they're defined as green areas necessary for holidays and leisure time for the residents of neighboring cities. The proposed change would mainly affect the urban holiday area between Nes Tziona and Rishon Letzion.

According to the planning authorities, the change proposed in Master Plan 35 bridge the gap between available land and available housing. Planning directorate officials estimate that there is currently a shortage of 80,000 apartments. The government ordered the Israel Land Administration and the Housing and Construction Ministry to significantly expand land reserves designated for future construction when they write up their next five-year plan.

Thehe planned change could significantly damage the few remaining open area reserves in the center of the country.

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense have appealed the Interior Ministry plan, which they say is irresponsible, hasty and based on data that wasn't properly examined.

The planning directorate has decided not to deal, at present, with the need to safeguard green areas, originally one of the main goals of the national master plan. For that reason, environmental groups believe that the move is politically motivated, seeing it as an effort to demonstrate shortly before the election that the government is taking action to reduce the housing shortage.

Alon Ron