Residents of Rehovot don’t have to go far to reach the “country.” Only a short distance from the city’s eastern neighborhoods is a rural area with red loam hills, some of the area’s last remaining winter pools and green fields. In the near future, however, these vistas may be no more than a memory, because the municipality and the Interior Ministry’s Planning Administration want to build thousands of apartments on the land.
“This area is important not just to the residents of Rehovot but to other communities in the area,” says Moshe Perlmutter, the environmental protection coordinator at the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “It can be a solution to the increasing demand for natural areas in which to spend leisure time, hike, or ride bikes. Today there are practically no such areas left near the big cities.”
In recent years the Rehovot municipality has drawn up a new master plan, in which it proposes to expand construction in the open areas to the east to accommodate some 5,000 new homes. This plan had been blocked until now by the Interior Ministry’s Central District office, on grounds that the city ought to grow by increasing the density of the current urban areas and not by rezoning agricultural land for construction.
But recently there has been a change of heart. Amendments in the National Development Plan (Tama 35), which the ministry’s National Planning Administration is promoting, will increase the number of housing units in several cities at the expense of adjacent green areas. The planners argue that this is the only way the government can meet its targets for expanding the housing supply.
Rehovot could be considered a test case of this new policy, and the Planning Administration has even related to it as such in discussions of the changes it seeks to make to Tama 35. A proposal to expand construction in Rehovot on some 2,000 dunams to the east is soon to be submitted to the National Planning and Building Council for approval. Chances of it being approved are high.
Similar plans to expand into green areas are in the works for Rishon Letzion, northeastern Tel Aviv, Modi’in and Kfar Saba. In Modi’in this expansion is liable to harm the hills north of the city, where there is an impressive variety of flora and fauna. In Rishon Letzion, the remaining sand dunes to the west will be further encroached upon, while Ashdod is also liable to lose sand dunes.
The Rehovot region, which includes the adjacent cities of Rishon Letzion and Nes Tziona, has already lost a considerable portion of its open areas to a new villa community on the limestone ridge near Nes Tziona and Route 431. The area on which the Rehovot construction is planned was surveyed by the SPNI three years ago. “It would be proper to preserve the area as a unique cultural landscape that represents the natural and agricultural history of the city of Rehovot and its environs,” the survey report says.
“The lands east of Rehovot can create a continuum of open spaces together with other areas adjacent to them to the east,” notes Perlmutter. “This is an area with loam and limestone hills that serve as a unique habitat in the coastal region that is slowly disappearing.”
Four years ago a group of Rehovot residents seeking to preserve the open areas banded together to form a public committee called Rehovot Spaces. This past weekend, the group and the SPNI sponsored an event for the general public that included hikes in the area to encourage the public to support its preservation.
“We want to call the attention of public figures to the importance of preserving this area and to recruit the public and environmental groups to the cause as well,” explained Dr. Yuval Sapir, a Rehovot resident and the director of Tel Aviv University’s Botanical Garden.
The Rehovot municipality said that the city’s master plan had been approved in a process that included public input and the examination of several alternate development plans. “The option that was chosen strikes a balance between density and quality of life in the central city and expansion eastward on no more than eight percent of the area,” the city said in a statement. “The city has no more land reserves for construction and public areas. The option chosen will contribute to the preservation of the open areas and the residents’ access to them, including the building of bike paths. Thus the balance between development and nature conservation will be preserved.”
Perlmutter insists that the construction will harm a greater percentage of the area than the municipality claims. “We fear this will be the first bite, after which the rest of the area will be built upon in a salami-like fashion,” he said.