Greens get bulldozed as reforms look to end Israeli housing crisis (HAŽARETZ NEWS) By Zafrir Rinat 02/21/12)
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Many suggestions by environmental experts have been dropped from the
latest version of the reform bill meant to solve Israel´s housing
Last Thursday, a battery of planning experts, headed by the Interior
Ministry´s Planning Administration director Binat Schwartz, marched
into the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to discuss the
planning and building reform bill, which is being prepared for its
two final readings.
The bill, which Netanyahu considers one of the most important of his
term, is meant to allow the government to advance construction plans
Schwartz told him there were still changes that had to made to make
the planning process more efficient, among them giving more power to
the local planning committees and doing away with the obligation to
conduct environmental impact studies on construction plans.
Those present agreed to include Schwartz´s changes, and the rush was
on to rewrite the bill to include them. Officials of the
Environmental Protection Ministry, who were not invited to the
meeting, suddenly found themselves having to respond to major changes
to the bill with only a few hours´ notice.
"That´s what staff work in this government looks like," a government
environment expert said bitterly. "We´re debating this bill for
almost two years and suddenly, in one day, they insert changes that
could have a significant impact on Israel´s landscape."
This little coup by the Planning Administration intensified the
frustration of environmental experts who have been testifying for
months before a joint panel of the Knesset Interior and Environment,
and Economics committees, which is preparing the bill for its second
and third readings.
The "green" representatives tried to insert changes to the bill that
they claim would better balance between the needs to preserve nature
and the right of the public to file objections, and the desire of the
government to advance housing and infrastructure plans.
It seemed to be working. After hearing all the environmentalists
testify, the head of the joint Knesset panel, MK Amnon Cohen,
declared that "after all the changes we make based on what we´ve
heard in committee, this bill´s mother won´t even recognize it."
But when the updated version of the law was distributed earlier this
week, it emerged that not only had the government ignored almost all
the suggestions made by the environmental experts, the bill included
changes not debated by the committee at all, including those
suggested by Schwartz.
The new law is aimed at helping bridge the increasing gap between
housing demand and supply by speeding up planning procedures, which
often stymie construction for years. It is hoped that increasing the
housing stock will lower home prices, though no government entity can
say by how much, and when.
The law calls for including "accessible housing" - that is, smaller,
more affordable apartments, in every building project, but does not
specify how such housing would be funded.
Under the proposal, housing plans would only go through one planning
committee - the local planning committee - which would get
considerable authority to prepare "general plans" for their locales
that could replace existing regional master plans.
The bill also establishes a number of subcommittees and special
infrastructure committees that could approve plans speedily, and
restricts the ability of the public to appeal or object to them.
Public and environmental groups say that the regional master plans
the bill wants to emasculate have already allocated enough land to
build many years´ worth of housing.
Green groups say the bill would enable local planning committees to
rezone open areas or cut down forests for housing. It could also lead
to the revival of various plans that had already been dropped after
long battles by environmentalists, such as the "Safdie plan" to build
over 20,000 homes on the ridges west of Jerusalem.
Iris Hann, a planner with the Society for the Protection of Nature in
Israel (SPNI ), pointed out that the bill would remove the obligation
of planning committees to publish their protocols or the opinions of
experts they receive within a week. Planning panels could thus delay
the release of information and deny the public enough time to respond
to plans that could affect their property values or their quality of
"Instead of trying to repair the damage wrought by such an aggressive
bill," said Hann, "the government is continuing as it pleases and has
submitted for a vote a version that not only totally ignores the
thousands of comments made, but integrates, in an underhanded
fashion, even more destructive proposals."
The Interior Ministry responded by saying, "The bill on the planning
and building reform is in the process of being legislated in
accordance with the regular Knesset procedures. The updates inserted
in the bill will be debated in the Knesset in accordance with
The Prime Minister´s Office said the reform would "save Israeli
citizens from the current convoluted process of obtaining building
permits and will fight corruption." (© Copyright 2012 Ha´aretz
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