Israeli Planning Board Approves Jerusalem Interchange, Clearing Way for Ecologically Disastrous New Neighborhood

The National Planning and Building Council reversed its subcommittee's decision to hold the Ora Junction project, which is meant to facilitate the contested construction of a new neighborhood at the Lavan Ridge. Climate activists say the plans spell the destruction of local ecology

Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
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A rendering of the interchange at the Ora junction.
A rendering of the interchange at the Ora junction.Credit: Jerusalem Transportation Master Planning Team
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A national planning board gave the go-ahead on Monday to pending plans for a new Jerusalem interchange, removing a major obstacle to the construction of the Lavan Ridge neighborhood that stands at the heart of the city's greatest environmental battle in recent years.

Environmental groups charge that construction of the road at Ora Junction will severely damage the landscape and ecology, as well as perpetuate the use of private vehicles rather than public transportation.

The Lavan Ridge project includes more than 5,000 housing units built on a forested patch of land south of the junction and stipulates that it will go into effect on the condition that the plan for the interchange – called "the leveled separation" – is approved.

The plan, approved by National Planning and Building Council, also includes expanding the road coming down from the Kiryat Menachem neighborhood to the Hadassah Ein Karem hospital and digging two new tunnels for vehicular traffic. The project developers said that the leveled separation is necessary to improve traffic flow in the area and to prioritize the light rail which is scheduled to run through the junction.

About a year ago, the National Council’s subcommittee for appeals upheld an appeal that ordered the building project be put on hold, which was submitted by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the 15 Minutes Public Transportation Alliance, Jerusalem's deputy mayor and others. The appeal was sustained because the planners did not conduct an environmental impact survey prior to approval, and contented with only an environmental recommendation.

The Lavan Ridge and Moshav Ora, last year.Credit: Emil Salman

But this week, the National Planning Council repealed the restraining order and approved the plan, ruling that in this case an environmental recommendation, rather than a full impact survey, was sufficient. According to Gilad Barnea, the attorney representing the nature society and 15 Minutes, the crucial difference between a recommendation and an impact survey is that the survey examines the environmental impact of several alternatives – including scrapping the project – and testing them to a cost-benefit analysis.

“An environmental recommendation is an executive document, not a strategic one,” Barnea said. “The Supreme Court has already ruled that this is insufficient for large-scale plans.” Barnea and the environmental organizations have already announced their intent to file an administrative appeal.

The council’s decision stated that it was persuaded that “the leveled separation proposed provides a proper transportation solution and will lead to a reduction in traffic congestion at Ora Junction, existing and future, to an improved and streamlined public transport system, and improved service for ambulances and vehicles in the southern neighborhoods, including the Ora and Aminadav moshavs.”

The council also accepted the position that although the area is defined as having “high landscape sensitivity,” the plan has no significant environmental impact, and therefore there was no need to require the developers to conduct an environmental impact survey. The decision was made by a majority vote, which included the Environmental Protection Ministry representative.

The representative of environmental NGOs on the council, Eli Ben Ari, who also serves as the legal counsel for the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense wrote a minority opinion opposing the decision. “The attempt to depict reality as different than it is should be wholly rejected, as should the claim that quarrying of hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of dirt, the need for removal solutions and the setting of the necessary staging areas… are not potentially harmful [to the environment] both in the area of the project and areas nearby,” Ben Ari wrote.

In January, Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Leon promoting an alternative to the Lavan Ridge project to include the same number of housing units on a significantly smaller area. The project has received the approval of some environmental organizations, while others continue to oppose any further construction in the area. TheMarker reported last week that the Jerusalem municipality and the Israel Land Authority had reached an agreement that the city would allow the advertising of several hundred housing units according to the original project, on the condition that the Authority would then support promoting Leon's reduced-area plan.

The Lavan Ridge, last January.Credit: Emil Salman

The “Saving the Hills of Jerusalem” organization responded to the decision saying it was a “sad day for Israeli citizens and a mark of shame on the planning administration.” The organization – a local group opposed to construction projects in and around the Jerusalem hills – vowed to continue their fight for transparent and environmental planning, noting that the “decision to bypass the highest appellate committee in Israel and ignore its arguments is an attempt to blow smoke in the eyes of the public, and an affront to the democratic principles of the planning system.”

Jerusalem City Council member Yovav Zur said in response: “The national council has decided today to bluntly ignore the appellate committee, and the need to conduct a comprehensive environmental survey. This is a puzzling precedent that raises difficult questions regarding the decision-making process […] we aren’t giving up, and will continue to fight with all the means at our disposal.”

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