Victory for Environmentalists: Israeli Planning Council Preserves Green Space

The plan would have allowed construction on up to 150,000 dunams (37,000 acres) of open space, and allowed for approval of more than a million housing units in the coming 15 years.

Ofer Vaknin

The National Planning and Building Council on Tuesday rejected a proposal to rezone open areas outside city limits for construction as part of a plan to expand the amount of land available for housing.

The council instead approved an alternative proposal, presented by the Union of Local Authorities in Israel and the Forum of 15 large cities, under which every case of a developer proposing to breach the urban limits to build in open areas would have to be examined individually. However, it was decided to allow construction to breach the urban fabric into open areas in a few specific locations, including Rehovot.

Only nine members of the council support the Interior Ministry Planning Administration’s plan, while 14 members supported the alternative. This was a resounding defeat for the Interior Ministry and for the Housing and Construction Ministry, which had supported the Planning Administration proposal. If approved, the plan would have allowed construction on up to 150,000 dunams (37,000 acres) of open space, and allowed for approval of more than a million housing units in the coming 15 years.

It was a victory for a coalition of green groups, local government leaders, and planners. During Tuesday’s debate, it emerged that in addition to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the Justice Ministry and Health Ministry also objected to the plan.

The council also decided to expand the areas that are defined in master plans as “scenic areas,” which are not nature reserves but areas where building is restricted because of natural features or landscapes, or because of national heritage sites located there. It was also decided for the first time to mark plans with areas defined as “ecological corridors” that will connect open areas. These corridors will not have the status of nature reserves either, but it will be much harder to get construction plans approved on them.

During the six-hour debate, which took place at the national council’s headquarters in Jerusalem, the Planning Administration proposal was attacked by representatives of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, Be’er Sheva Mayor Ruvik Danilovich, Deputy Attorney General Erez Kaminetz and others. The environmentalists and mayors argued that allowing a breach of city limits would lead to additional construction in the center of the country at the expense of development in outlying areas.

‘Today’s decision is great news for Israeli citizens, who will finally enjoy a broad selection of housing units at fair prices as well as green areas,” said Environmental Protection Minister Amir Peretz. “The accomplishment joins the great achievement we had in the fight against shale oil and the future of the Elah Valley, and demonstrates the degree to which environmental justice in inextricably linked to social justice.” Peretz was referring to last week’s decision by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee to reject a plan to try to produce oil from shale in the Judean lowlands.

The SPNI responded: “This was a correct, worthy and justified decision. There are hundreds of thousands of units approved that are just waiting to be built. Efforts should be made to carry out [these plans] immediately and not continue to initiate more and more plans that will not contribute anything to [resolving] the housing crisis nor add a single new home, but only undermine citizens’ welfare and quality of life.”

Haimi Schneider, a member of the Israeli Association of United Architects’ executive, welcomed the decision “to avoid harming open areas, something that would have definitely harmed the periphery, and to strengthen cities, urban renewal and environmental values.” He noted that his group had suggested that any future proposal to build on open areas should be conditioned on allocating resources for urban renewal and strengthening outlying areas, particularly in employment and education, “to prevent the continued strengthening of Tel Aviv at the expense of Be’er Sheva, Haifa and the periphery in general.”

Haim Bibas, the mayor of Modi’in-Maccabim-Reut and chairman of the Union of Local Authorities, also praised the decision, saying it would prevent overbuilding in the center of the country. “In locales where pinpoint changes [to plans] are needed, the Planning Administration must simplify the bureaucratic processes and expedite procedures so as to beef up urban areas locally and efficiently,” he said.

Attorney Amit Bracha, director of the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, called the decision the second enormous public achievement within a week, after the decision to nix the shale oil program. “The threat to the green lungs in the Jerusalem hills, swaths of the Sharon coast and open areas throughout the country has been removed,” he said. “The public interest triumphed due to the determined struggle and the important coalition formed by the green organizations and local government.”