Caution, Iris Ahead!

The public struggle to save irises is frustrating contractors and entrepreneurs whose plans have been postponed time and time again.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Developers would be wise to rule out the presence of irises before planning new neighborhoods or communities at a given site. Experience teaches that building plans may founder when faced with opposition from environmental activists who demand protection for these rare flowers. These environmentalists are often supported by local councils.

In recent years, the number of cases involving public struggles to save endangered irises from potential construction has increased. In some of instances, plans were minimized to prevent damage to these plants. Recently, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a lawsuit by private landowners who had been denied permission to build on land in the kurkar (calcareous sandstone) hills on the outskirts of Nes Tziona. One of the reasons the court cited for rejecting their suit was the presence of significant natural treasures, including the purple iris (iris atropurpurea.)

Imprisoned garden

Israel is home to eight iris species, which are all defined as rare. Some of them have become national symbols of nature preservation. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI) used the Gilboa iris (iris haynei) in its logo and coastal iris fields have become the focus of public debate surrounding the protection of the purple iris and prevention of construction.

The struggle to save irises in the Nes Tziona hills has continued for more than a decade. During the last decade, there was a plan to permit development of privately-owned sections of that land and owners were slated to receive handsome compensation for their property. Other sections were set aside for a national park and agriculture. Green organizations, which fought the plan, were eventually supported by the Nes Tziona municipality. Finally, the Nes Tziona Local Planning and Building Committee decided to remove these areas from the building plan.

Landowners claimed in court that the kurkar ridge lay beyond the areas for which they had requested permits. The municipal building committee said they held many meetings to find a solution. According to the committee, experts from the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority (INNPPA) believed it was not possible to permit the landowners' proposal to reduce land devoted to a national park without turning it into "a garden imprisoned by residential buildings."

In her ruling, Judge Sara Sirota maintained that the landowners' claims were unjustified. She noted that local planning councils had to express their opinion regarding natural and scenic treasures and that the National Master Plan actually required them to do so.

Nes Tziona Mayor Yossi Shvo expressed great satisfaction in response to Judge Sirota's ruling. "This is a day of celebration for nature advocates in Israel. The District Court lifted the threatening cloud which hung over the kurkar hills and supported my decision to cancel building permits in the area. Construction at this site would destroy one of the last remaining natural treasures available to the Israeli public in the coastal plain. We should declare the area a national park and continue to preserve it."

Construction halts in Netanya

The presence of irises also changed construction plans in Netanya. The major construction plan, dubbed Ir Yamim, was minimized in response to opposition by Netanya resident Herzl Keren. His struggle led to a general shift in municipal policy.

"The Netanya municipality agreed to relinquish an approved plan to build hotels in the iris Ha'argaman habitat next to the beach," said Moshe Perlmutter, a regional SPNI nature preservation director who frequently supports local campaigns to thwart municipal building plans. "Following the initiative of [Netanya] Mayor Miriam Feierberg and City Engineer Paul Vital, architect Amos Brandeis prepared a general plan, which duplicates building rights on the beach, where irises are located, at an alternate site."

Recently, the municipality promoted other plans in the area of Netanya's winter pools where rare plants including the purple iris grow. After examining statistics outlining the prevalence of irises and other natural treasures, the city agreed to investigate the possibility of relocating the site of a planned amphitheater.

Another ongoing battle involves saving the irises that grow on Mt. Yitzpor, part of the Gilboa ridge. The Beit Shean local council planned to build a community, called Michal, on the mountain and even received permission from the INNPPA to reduce the area devoted to a nature preserve at the site. A survey conducted by scientists, on behalf of the INNPPA, proved there were major concentrations of Gilboa irises at the site. In response to this survey, the INNPPA reversed its decision to reduce the size of the nature preserve.

A few months ago, urban planner Dina Ringer published a report on behalf of the Interior Ministry. She examined opposition to the plan to build a new community and recommended that the plan be scrapped based on findings regarding the irises. This week, the National Planning and Building Council denied permission to implement the community building plan. The council maintained that establishment of the community would damage natural treasures and recommended investigating the feasibility of expanding existing communities in the Gilboa region.

Another battle in the conflict between development and the iris is being waged in the city of Upper Nazareth, where city officials are planning to build a residential neighborhood in the habitat of the Nazareth iris (iris bismarckiana.) According to an INNPPA survey, the area slated for construction has a major concentration of these irises.

INNPPA researchers wrote in a report, "the only way to preserve irises is at the site where they are located. Despite the provision of considerable open space in the neighborhood, the Mt. Yona D Plan [in Nazareth] damages hundreds of irises. Therefore, our professional recommendation is to reduce the area of construction in the neighborhood, to avoid any building whatsoever in the southern section, and to transform that section into a nature preserve. There are large concentrations of Nazareth irises in the park and recreation areas proposed in conjunction with the plan. The level of development of the park must be precisely defined in the plan protocol to prevent damage to these concentrations and assure their survival for years to come."

The Upper Nazareth municipality responded to the findings of the INNPPA survey: "In collaboration with green organizations, the municipality is investigating the possibility of amending the building plan to prevent damage to the Nazareth iris, which is a symbol of the city."

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