Death by a Thousand Snags

Building projects across the country are being held up by an embarrassment of hitches, from uncooperative squatters to precious antiquities.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is diligently promoting his "supertanker" plan to speed up development of tens of thousands of residential units. His efforts, though, are of little avail to many landowners already holding building permits but whose projects have hit unexpected stumbling blocks.

Even projects already underway can suddenly be stopped dead in their tracks by unforeseen complications from the past or present. A distinctive tree, a ritual bath from the Maccabean era, or Defense Ministry communications beam are just a few hitches developers might encounter, forcing planning revisions and pushing completion way off schedule.

Rama Theater - Guy Raivitz - 18072011
Guy Raivitz

Squatters fights

A common problem on large land reserves is squatting. Although not an unforeseen problem, when and how it will be solved is anyone's guess: Or, in other words, how much it will cost to evict the intruders.

Attorney Tzvi Shoob, a specialist in building and planning, says that in recent years many "open" land reserves in the central region, primarily in large cities, have already become populated by groups of people without land rights, usually from low socio-economic backgrounds.

"Construction that landowners and local authorities want to promote is held up by squatters who have occupied the land for many years," Shoob said. "The authorities and developers try to clear out the squatters quickly and cheaply, but some claim to own property rights and demand large amounts to leave."

Shoob says efforts to clear the land can take years, both in and out of court.

"The closer eviction day approaches, the more families there are to evict - since many just ride along to enjoy picking the developer's deep pockets," he said.

In 1999, the Friedman Khakshouri construction company won a wide-ranging tender to build in Shekhunat Ha'argazim, literally, the crate neighborhood, a Tel Aviv slum. In exchange, the company undertook to evacuate and compensate the squatters. To this day the developer and the squatters are still fighting legal battles, and construction there remains frozen.

Preservation halls

Buildings earmarked for preservation could also freeze an approved project. "Strict limitations on buildings slated for preservation is one delayer of projects," says Shoob. "Before any demolition or construction adjacent to a structure with a conservation designation, many permits are required from a variety of authorities, and the authorization process can take a long time."

A project to replace a derelict housing project on Lavi Street in Givatayim with modern buildings for its residents has been in the works for 10 years. Having won approval from the Housing and Construction Ministry, local council and district committee, the plan was put before the public for any final objections.

But then, just recently, tenants anxious to see the plan moving forward were dismayed to find it completely derailed instead: At the behest of green groups and the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, the district committee declared the crumbling buildings a heritage landmark, canceling the project. The tenants are now in the process of appealing to the national council, but even if finally approved in the end the project will suffer another long delay.

And then there's Cafe Bialik in Tel Aviv. The landowner planned to demolish the restaurant and replace it with a seven-story apartment building. The plan was approved by the municipality and moved to a public comment period. In the process, the structure was earmarked for preservation and just four stories above the cafe were allowed. The project has already been delayed over a year, and various issues relating to conservation - like the transfer of rights to landowners - can be expected to keep it in limbo for a long time to come.

Rent trap

In the 1950s and 1960s the Knesset passed laws to help the masses of new immigrants find housing and establish new businesses. People of ill-means were allowed to pay lower rents and given extra-long claims on property.

"Unfortunately this anachronistic law still exists, and owners can only evict a rent control tenant under very specific circumstances," Shoob said. "Developers, landowners and sometimes even the authorities trying to promote a building project are stymied by rent control tenants refusing to vacate the premises. Most are aware that they can only be evicted through a court order, while developers want them to vacate quickly and at a relatively low cost. Rent control tenants often condition their evacuation on various demands and the confrontation becomes a legal battle - delaying construction for years."

Landowners in Ramat Gan's Rama Theater compound are in the midst of such a battle with a protected tenant. The owners recently signed an agreement to sell the land for NIS 70 million to a buyers' group planning to erect an exclusive residential tower. But the proprietor of a 25-square-meter kiosk in the compound claims "protected tenant" rights.

Since 2007 the landowners have been trying to work out an arrangement with the kiosk owner, without success, and are petitioning the court to evict him. The buyers' group has held a demolition permit for six months but can't use it until the kiosk owner agrees to a settlement.

Defense demands

Defense Ministry stipulations can also postpone construction projects for years. Every plan, whatever its importance, can find itself stuck due to security demands of some sort, like height restrictions on buildings.

In 2008, the local committee approved plans for the construction of three 43-story towers with 453 apartments in Tel Aviv's Kikar Hamedina, a huge undeveloped plaza at the center of one of the country's priciest neighborhoods.

But that was before the Defense Ministry intervened, demanding that the plan be blocked because a communications beam traverses the site. The Tel Aviv municipality and the Defense Ministry have been seeking a solution ever since, while the plans gather dust.

There is now talk of restricting the buildings to a height of 26 floors but the landowners' attorney, Amiram Ben-Yacov, says the possibility of deflecting the beam from the plaza and returning to the original plan is being examined.

Attorney Anat Biran, an expert on building and planning, says that communication beams limit construction in other areas as well, like Beit Lessin in Tel Aviv, and in parts of Herzliya and Netanya.

"I recommend that any developer wanting to build high-rises should look into this issue, since there have already been cases where the beam has forced changes to plans after being discovered at a relatively late stage," she said.

Red tape from the past

Approved projects where construction has already begun can also suddenly come to a screeching halt. That's what happened to a residential project in Modi'in, at the developer's expense, when ancient artifacts were uncovered at the site.

Ofra Hadad is CEO of Euro-Israel Real Estate which was developing the Euro Villa project in the city's Buchman (now Morasha ) neighborhood.

"During excavation, pottery fragments were found on the site. We were told to immediately stop all work at that location until all archaeological digging was completed. About 30 people from the Israel Antiquities Authority dug for 45 days, discovering an ancient ritual bath on our lot from the Maccabean period."

Hadad says the Antiquities Authority demanded they change the plans to preserve the site, but they were hamstrung by costs at that late stage of development.

"In the end a compromise was reached: The IAA moved the structure, stone by stone, to another location," she said. Her company was forced to absorb all the costs, in addition to the month and a half delay, to the tune of NIS 1.1 million.

Protected trees

According to Eran Nitzan, vice-president of the Association of Contractors and Builders in Israel, the forest commissioner has the authority to prevent the issuing of a building permit until his instructions are carried out. He says that a 4,000 unit residential project in the vicinity of a centrally located army base has been delayed for months because the Defense Ministry won't give the commissioner an entry permit to photograph the trees.

In Haifa, developers face a similar problem. Developers planned to demolish an old house on Rothschild Boulevard and replace it with a six-unit apartment building. But next to the house stands a row of Washingtonia Robusta palm trees. After neighborhood residents and representatives from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel petitioned the authorities, the district appeals committee ruled that the developers must preserve the trees and integrate them into the project.

The public speaks

The Planning and Building Law states that anyone can object to a plan during the public comment period of approval. The law also allows appeals against approved plans. In many cases these procedures can drag on.

Objections to the the "Bulgarian Lands" area where a new town, Irus, is being established near moshav Beit Hanan led to a 17-year delay after the local committee filed repeated objections.

The area consists of 388 dunams of privately-owned land purchased before the state was established. In 1985, the national council declared that the land should be earmarked for residential use, but the regional council objected.

In 1994, the frustrated landowners turned to the district committee, which approved the plan in 1998 and set conditions for obtaining building permits. But the regional council continued objecting to the plan in various courts over the ensuing years. In March 2011, District Court Judge Michal Agmon approved the plan, saying, "I hope this ruling will be end of the story for this 60 year ordeal."

Recently, construction at the site finally began.