Erdan vows to foil Timna valley hotel complex
12/13/2011 02:29

Committee-approved buildings there will cause ‘enormous, irreversible damage,’ says green group.
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After the Southern District Planning Committee approved the construction of a hotel complex in the Timna Valley on Monday, Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan said his office will undermine the decision in front of the National Council for Planning and Building.

After a day-long meeting, the committee approved the construction of developer Yoav Igra’s Timna hotel complex in a 10-to-4 vote, a decision that members of Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) and other environmental groups have been battling since 2008.

Building the development, which would include four hotel complexes, a conference center and an artificial river, would cause “enormous and irreversible damage” to the unique ecosystem located in Timna’s Sasgon Valley, the green advocacy group had argued.

On the final decision day, the environmental protection minister decided to approach the committee himself to convince them the project should be shifted to an alternative, less environmentally damaging location.

“Choosing an alternative, less harmful plan will enable a rapid planning process without objectives,” Erdan told the committee, promising that if this route is taken he will ensure no objections complicate the new process.

“If the current plan is approved, the Environmental Protection Ministry will undermine the decision and will activate all means possible in order to prevent the destruction of nature and unique landscape.”

When the plans were approved at the day’s end, he committed to doing just that – vowing to take the case to the National Council for Planning and Building.

“If tomorrow morning there is a developer who wants to build a hotel at the Western Wall plaza because it is good for him, and alongside this there was an alternative that doesn’t disturb the landscape or obstruct it for the rest of the visitors, would you side with the developer then as well?” Erdan asked the committee, according to his spokeswoman.

While the committee approved the construction of the site, it did, however, order the developer to submit updated plans that restrict his rights of construction, and that curb the size of the hotel and facilities that accompany it, such as the pool and leisure areas.

According to the committee, the developer must suggest two options for the hotel within the Sasgon Valley in a built-up area that does not exceed 2.4 hectares, which is significantly less than the original 30 hectare space he requested. The developer also must submit his revised plans to the Environmental Protection Ministry, which will deliver its opinion at the next committee meeting to discuss the project.

The Tourism Ministry expressed satisfaction that the committee chose to approve the hotel, which it said has been under “attack” since 1996, when a local master plan for the area was first approved.

Despite a recent “phenomenon” that has led to the cancellation of hotels slated to be built next to beaches, ministry officials said they are confident that in this case, the developer will be able to contribute greatly to the local residents and the regional economy, while maintaining the natural environment.

Critical to a progressive Israel is a “combination of tourism development with preservation of nature and the environment,” the ministry said.

“The establishment of a tourism development in the periphery, on an attractive location in terms of landscape, is expected to bring an increase in tourism to the area, expand employment and economic activity in general and diversify the Israeli tourism product,” said Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov in a statement released by his office. “In doing so, this will address the shortage of hotel rooms in Israel and equally important – will encourage developers to invest in the Israeli hotel industry.”

In 2008, IUED, along with local residents, had initially petitioned plans to establish the development in Sasgon Valley. Sasgon, in English, means variegation, a scientific term for the appearance of different colors among plant vegetation.

Following the petition, the court ruled the initial approval process had been flawed, and the project was returned to the district committee for renewed destruction, which has until now prevented the spades from hitting the ground, according to IUED.

Adhering to a court order, Ethos environmental consulting group carried out an objective, third-party report that examined 10 alternative options for hotel locations, meanwhile confirming “unequivocally” that the plans at Timna would destroy land that is “rare at a national level, an area that has not yet been breached by human activities” and also disrupts a portion of the Israel Trail, the group said.

Coinciding with the thirdparty report, the Society for the Protection of Nature (SPNI) also conducted its own report in November 2009, and determined at least eight alternative sites that were preferable to the Sasgon location, from an environmental standpoint.

“The committee members ignored a professional, objective report that determined that the hotel must not be established in Sasgon Valley, and voted contrary to public interest,” said IUED Executive Director Amit Bracha, in a statement released jointly by his office and SPNI. “As far as we are concerned, the struggle will begin anew in full force, we will demand that the subject will be transferred to the National Council, and if necessary we will also turn to legal proceedings.”

SPNI officials said they, too, would do all that they can to prevent the destruction of Sasgon Valley, and called upon the developer himself to cancel the plans and build at an alternative location.

“Instead of being courageous, district committee members chose to take cowardly actions and ignore the environmental report,” a local group, the Committee for Saving Sasgon Valley, said in the same collective release. “It is clear that the struggle is not over, until the bulldozers are on the ground, and we will do everything so that this does not happen.”

Leaders of another environmental group, Green Course, likewise slammed the decision, noting that while they are in favor of development and tourism, they prefer that the values of nature and the desires of local residents also be considered.

Approval of hotel in Israel’s scenic Sasgon Valley has greens worried
The council did rule, however, that the developer, Igra Hotels, must submit a plan with a scaled-down scope of construction.
By Zafrir Rinat

Developers can build a hotel in the Sasgon Valley in the south of the Arava Desert despite objections voiced by green organizations and Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan, according to a decision by the Southern District Planning and Building Council Monday.

The council did rule, however, that the developer, Igra Hotels, must submit a plan with a scaled-down scope of construction.
Sasgon Valley – Zafrir Rinat – 13122011

The Sasgon Valley in the Arava, where a hotel is slated to be built.
Photo by: Zafrir Rinat

The Environmental Protection Ministry and green organizations have announced they will fight the plan and will try to submit an appeal to the National Planning and Building Council.

“If a developer decides tomorrow that he wants to build in the Western Wall plaza because it is a tourist attraction, will the state also back his considerations?” asked Erdan. “We need to learn to develop alongside the environment and nature and not to destroy them.”

In recent years, Igra Hotels has pushed ahead with plans to erect a several-hundred room hotel in the heart of the Sasgon Valley, which lies just north of Timna Park. Green organizations fought a legal battle against the plans, taking their case to the Be’er Sheva District Court and arguing that the construction will severely damage the unique region.

During the legal proceedings, Ethos – Architecture, Planning & Environment was called in to conduct a study of the plans. The company concluded that alternative locations for the hotel should be considered so as to avoid any environmental damage to the Sasgon Valley.

The Southern District Planning and Building Council, however, did not uphold Ethos’ recommendations, and ruled that the hotel can be built, with restrictions, to allow the public to enjoy an area of the country that is currently inaccessible to most.

The council ruled, too, that Igra must put forward two alternatives for the development of the hotel over a constructed area that does not exceed 24,000 square meters – a reduction of more than one-third of the area proposed in the original plans.

Igra must also submit an environmental impact statement for the construction that will be reviewed by the Environmental Protection Ministry.

“I am also in favor of hotel development in the Arava,” Erdan said on Monday during the meeting of the Southern District Planning and Building Council. “But there is no reason for the council to function only in keeping with the economic interests of the developer and to allow it to build in nature and destroy it instead of instructing it to build at a more southerly alternative that was recommended by the planning consultant hired by the district council.”

The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the Israel Union for Environmental Defense harshly slammed the council’s decision, charging that its members voted contrary to public interests.

“The struggle is clearly not over until the bulldozers arrive on the scene, and we will do all we can to prevent this from happening,” said a statement from an Arava residents group set up to protest the construction.

The Tourism Ministry welcomed the council’s decision.