In Israel, Putting Up That Pergola Was Never So Easy

Israelis love making changes to their properties, and now new rules make it easier for them to do so. At least the authorities hope so.

Jacob Solomon

Late last month the dream of thousands of Israelis came true: No more red tape for the simplest kind of construction. A year and a half after unveiling the so-called pergola plan, Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar signed regulations specifying cases where no building permit is required.

It’s not just pergolas. It includes fences, gates, awnings, antennas, satellite dishes, photovoltaic solar panels, trash storage facilities, solar water heaters, air conditioners, winter enclosures at cafes and restaurants, guard stations, security cameras, lighting fixtures, bicycle storage racks and antennas for cellphone networks.

Each item is accompanied by conditions, which in most cases require the homeowner to inform the authorities within 45 days after the work is performed. The key question is whether as of August 1, when the regulations go into effect, the new regime will be fully in place.

Miriam Erez, the head of the Israel Association of Municipal Engineers, isn’t so sure.

“The fact that the minister signed off on the regulations is great; in the long term it will make life easier because it has saved a large chunk of the license department’s and local authorities’ time,” says Erez, who’s also the city engineer for the town of Or Yehuda east of Tel Aviv.

“But it’s not that tomorrow morning members of the public can go put up a pergola without a permit. There’s preparatory work that local planning committees need to do quickly,” she says. They need to provide specific directives and ensure that the policy is consistent.

So what do you do if you want to build without a permit?

“Basically it’s a process of self-licensing," Erez says. "The resident will need to go to the websites of both the Interior Ministry and his or her local authority and obtain information regarding how to put up a storage shed, pergola or anything else.”

The self-service process

Again, the local authority is key. “If we assume, for example, that it’s important for a particular local government that all pergolas look the same for esthetic reasons, there will be a lot of advance work in crafting directives in the jurisdiction,” Erez says.

“I would assume that in many localities, residents will start the self-service licensing process and install awnings, pergolas and fencing as they see fit, but in less well-organized localities this could lead to a mess. In any case, there’s no need to panic, since in the long term the step is a good one. It will free up the authorities to deal with more important matters.”

In Tel Aviv, officials expect the new regime to be implemented on time. Officials are wary, however, that people will interpret the streamlined procedure as a license to build whatever they wish without regard for municipal policy or their neighbors.

The director of the building license and inspection department at the Tel Aviv municipality, Iris Levin, says she hopes the public understands that the laxer approach isn’t a license for anarchy. Details on what can be performed without a permit appear on the municipality’s website, she notes.

“There could be cases in which someone who seeks to abide by the law may have trouble with the directives because some require a certain level of engineering knowledge,” Levin says. “I very much hope that the bureaucratic shortcut doesn’t come at the expense of safety and appearance, and that it doesn’t create disputes among neighbors.”

Real estate appraiser Erez Cohen says the regulations will significantly ease the burden for local building-license departments.

“In a small locale, license clerks deal with requests for putting up a fence just as they deal with the construction of a 20-unit apartment building,” he says. “Of course, the attention to less-important matters has greatly slowed down significant building plans.”

Architect Eden Bar even thinks the new regulations will hardly be felt. “This is stuff that most people didn’t even know required a permit, such as putting up a security camera or placing a small shed in a yard,” she says.

“In most cases, these were things that were built without a permit, and anyone who requested a permit got into trouble. The goal was to give whoever wants to act according to the law the legitimacy not to have to turn to the local authority.”

‘Behave like decent people’

Just as importantly, the new regime shifts responsibility to the public. “The citizen is the one who must report it,” Bar says. “This is saying to the public: ‘We as the government are no longer starting from the viewpoint that everyone is a criminal, and that you as the public should take responsibility, behave like decent people and don’t go crazy with building violations.”

According to Cohen, the real estate appraiser, this will be a big test for Israelis. “The regulations leave an opening for harassment; for example, if a resident puts an air conditioner with an engine in the neighbors’ window,” says Cohen. You used to have to have it approved by the municipality, and now the municipality doesn’t even know about it.”

This week TheMarker reported that the new regulations contain sections expected to benefit the cellphone companies. Cellphone antennas won’t need permits if they’re added to existing facilities.

Attorney Michael Bach for the Forum for Cellular Sanity has written to Interior Minister Sa’ar, saying that this aspect undermines existing law, which states that new cellular antennas require building permits.

“The Non-ionizing Radiation Law states that before constructing a cellular antenna, the cellular company must receive a permit from the local [planning and building] committee,” says Bach. The permit is needed to make clear to people that a cellular antenna has been put up near their homes and to let them object formally.

Bach has asked Sa’ar to change his tune on this aspect or at least to postpone its taking effect until the issue is looked into more closely. Otherwise the Forum will petition the High Court of Justice, Bach says.

Regarding the placing of a new antenna where an antenna already exists, the new one can go up if the site already has a standard permit and a permit from the Environmental Protection Ministry concerning radiation, the Interior Ministry says.

“It’s clear that the new regulations make it easier for both the citizen and the infrastructure organizations,” the ministry says.