The appeals committee of the National Planning and Building Council approved a large-scale building plan for the green hillsides of Reches Lavan (White Ridge) on the western edge of Jerusalem, rejecting some 6,000 objections by residents and environmental groups.
The plan includes a new neighborhood with 5,250 housing units on 1,045 dunams (261.25 acres) of open green space adjacent to the capital.
The White Ridge plan is at the center of a large public debate that has been going on for years, and is the biggest environmental battle being fought in Jerusalem today. Promoted by the Construction and Housing Ministry and the Israel Lands Authority, the plan would be the largest expansion of the capital to the west ever undertaken. Supporters say it is essential to enable urban renewal in the nearby neighborhoods of Kiryat Menahem and Kiryat Hayovel, and that it will ease the housing shortage in the city.
Opponents counter that it would cause irreversible harm to the landscape and major environmental damage. The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and other groups, such as Let the Animals Live, area residents and the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, have pointed out that thousands of trees and a large number of animal species, including gazelles, foxes, falcons and others, would be severely impacted. The most serious consequence is the harm to the underground hydrological systems in the area. A series of natural springs – and especially the very popular Lavan Spring – are at risk of drying up completely. Detractors also say that it will lead to an increase in the use of cars at the expense of the development of older neighborhoods and the use of public transportation.
But, while rejecting the objections and approving the plan, the appeals committee, which has the last word in planning matters, imposed a number of conditions. The regional planning and building committee, together with representatives from the government and city hall, will have to establish a team to accompany the implementation stages of the plans, and carefully define the exact needs of urban renewal plans in nearby neighborhoods – some of which are expected to spill over into the Lavan Ridge.
The committee also ordered to reduce the height of two 15-story towers planned for the Ora junction, and also demanded that the regional committee to examine ways to protect the springs during the construction process.
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However, it approved the construction of a multi-level intersection at the Ora junction in southwest Jerusalem. Environmental groups worry about the ramifications of that part of the project, during which two tunnels will have to be dug. The purpose of the multi-level separation of traffic is to eventually allow the construction of other new neighborhoods in the area, green organizations say. These neighborhoods – if they are built – would totally change the landscape and lead to the elimination of a large number of natural areas, as well as the expansion of Jerusalem’s suburbs.
The plan is a “necessary evil,” Appeals Committee Chairwoman Att. Shimrit Golan wrote in the decision. It will help to carry out urban renewal plans inside the city, she argued, in a manner that will limit the need to expand the development boundaries of the capital into the open spaces around it.
Ofer Berkovitch, a member of the Jerusalem city council from the Hitorerut party, called the committee’s decision on Reches Lavan regrettable, adding that Jerusalem has other routes to construction and the harm to Lavan Ridge and the springs is unnecessary. Berkovitch said his party would study the decision and continue to act to stop the project – even by legal means, along with other groups.
Naomi Tsur, the head of the Sustainable Jerusalem coalition, said: “We are all determined to continue and fight on behalf of the Jerusalem Hills, the green lung, the source of oxygen and main carbon sink for the center of the country – a region abundant with springs and animals, and, it goes without saying, for the 11,000 trees whose fate was just now determined.”
“We will now appeal to the Supreme Court, while our other public activities continue at full strength. This is a national issue,” Tsur added.