Where Are All of Israel's Flowers Going? Paved Over, Every One

The Interior Ministry's National Master Plan will create urban sprawl in the center of the country by swallowing up farm land.

Much of the countryside in the country's central core region will make way for urban development if changes being orchestrated by the Interior Ministry to National Master Plan 35 (Tama 35 in Hebrew) win government approval. Emerging plans call for the annexation of land totaling 18 square kilometers by neighboring cities.

Netanya is being slated to expand by 725 dunams to the north and east, creating an urban mass that will essentially swallow up the rural communities of Havatzelet Hasharon and Avihayil currently under the jurisdiction of the Emek Hefer Regional Council. Not far from Netanya in the northern part of the Sharon Plain, Kfar Yona and Sha'ar Efraim will also be enlarged with blueprints showing each of them annexing 300 dunams of farmland from the Lev Hasharon Regional Council.

The southern Sharon Plain will see sweeping changes as well. The municipal boundaries of Ra'anana will likely be extended northward to encompass the 900 dunams separating the city from Batzra, a farming community. The land, until now reported to be slated for recreational purposes, will undergo urban construction. Kfar Sava will spread in a northeasterly direction under the new plans, taking over 1,000 dunams of farmland from the South Sharon Regional Council to surround the rural settlement Tzofit and come within spitting distance of Kibbutz Nir Eliyahu.

Goodbye bases, hello high-rises

Meanwhile, plans for the removal of military bases from the central region could increase the area of Petah Tikva by 1,360 dunams, and of Rishon Letzion and Be'er Yaakov together by over 5,000 dunams.

The Interior Ministry's planning administration decided to update Tama 35 mainly because of a growing divergence between the plan's population targets for the various regions of the country and actual demographic trends. In other words, the trends envisioned in the original plans – migration toward Haifa and Be'er Sheva and reduced demand in the central region – haven't materialized.

The planning administration became aware that the projected supply of housing units was steadily diminishing, particularly in the country's center. It was decided, with the backing of the Prime Minister's Office, to take steps towards boosting the housing inventory in the core region by 90,000 units by 2030 with the construction of 330,000 homes within 17 years.

The revised plan also proposes new planning principles that will only apply to the central region. The regional planning and building committees, for instance, will be permitted in certain cases to approve the expansion of urban localities into protected areas if the land to be annexed will be zoned for business activity and employment purposes.

The changes also call for raising the density of residential construction in the Tel Aviv and central districts. Minimal density in Tel Aviv and the adjacent cities of Ramat Gan and Givatayim will be set at 16 housing units per dunam, in place of 12 units originally. Smaller cities like Ramat Hasharon will be required to build 14 units per dunam as opposed to a current 10 units, while in Petah Tikva and Rehovot the minimum density will be defined as 15 housing units per dunam rather than the current 11 units per dunam. In other Sharon district cities the minimum housing density will be 11 units per dunam in place of the current 10 units.

Rare united front by local governments against the plan

Sharp objections to the proposed revisions in Tama 35 by the association of local governments and the Forum of 15 – a group of cities not dependent on central government funding – surfaced this week in a government committee meeting called to discuss the subject. Municipal mayors and the heads of regional councils joined together against the proposals in a rare demonstration of common cause, and the association of local governments is planning to hold an open assembly Thursday focusing on the issue in the presence of Interior Minister Gideon Sa'ar.

According to Motti Delajo, head of the South Sharon Regional Council which stands to cede hundreds of dunams in territory to Kfar Sava, Petah Tikva, and Yehud, many of the plan's components have already been previously shot down by various forums.

"Just several years ago the borders committee headed by [former] judge Amnon Straschnov was appointed and unanimously decided to leave the green corridor north of Kfar Sava untouched," says Delajo. "In the Sharon area we're already now on the verge of having green spaces disappear and they need to be protected for the enjoyment of residents living there and for the future generations." Delajo says that despite his regional council standing to gain from betterment taxes levied on construction taking place on its undeveloped land, he still adamantly opposes the plan.

Cities which would expand their territory also oppose the plan. Addressing the planning administration, Petah Tikva mayor Uri Ohad told its members that planned changes to his city would be like "taking Hod Hasharon, placing it on a forklift, and adding it to Petah Tikva."

The breathing space between the different municipalities could all but disappear, and there are concerns that there won't be adequate infrastructure to support so many new housing units. "The plan doesn't provide for the physical and educational infrastructures needed by the central region cities in order to function properly," Ohad said.

Netanya mayor Miriam Feirberg Ikar also attacked the plan, claiming that increasing building rights in rural communities near urban areas will empty out the cities which already suffer in any case from having poorer populations than the rural locales.

"Alongside the meager piece of land that they're planning to give us, there's a significant increment in housing units for communal settlements and moshavim surrounding us," says Feirberg Ikar. "The plan continues the trend of separation and segregation, encourages migration of people with means from the cities, and leaves the city on its own to cope with social problems. The Trajtenberg Committee wasn't talking about villas when it said the housing supply should be increased, and it is cynical to invoke its name in this context."

'Government opening a front against the periphery'

The release of thousands of dunams in desirable areas for construction would seem a boon for builders. But according to Israel Builders Association president Eliav Ben-Shimon, the move takes place "just when, in the past few years, we finally witness a trend of buyers switching from the center to the periphery," as opposed to people leaving rural communities and heading for the big city.

"Homebuyers understand that Netanya and Petah Tikva are also unaffordable and demand has expanded to cities like Hadera, Or Akiva, Ashdod, and Ashkelon, as well as places enjoying easy transportation access like Yokne'am, Tzur Yitzhak, and other localities along Highway 6," says Ben-Shimon.

"There is a sense that the government is opening a front against the periphery," he adds. "We saw in the government's intention to cut development and infrastructure budgets for the periphery, in the cancellation of grants to homebuyers in the periphery, and we now see it in the area of planning. Israel's government needs to allow the trend to continue by creating new desirable areas in the periphery that will enjoy easy transportation access, grants, and homes at affordable prices for young families in order to diffuse the demand."

Nir Keidar
Nir Keidar