Israeli planning reform gets last-minute revision, drawing environmentalists’ ire – Haaretz

Government claims bill will allow for quicker approval of construction plans, but green groups worry it could harm the landscape and the public’s ability to oppose plans.
By Zafrir Rinat Published 21.02.12

Critics of a proposed reform of Israel’s planning establishment were shocked to discover this week that changes suggested by environmental experts had been dropped from the latest version of the bill, while last-minute changes inserted by the government could allow for construction in sensitive open spaces.

Last Thursday, a battery of planning experts, headed by Interior Ministry 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 in the Knesset.

The bill, which Netanyahu considers one of the most important of his term, is meant to allow the government to advance construction plans more quickly.

Schwartz told him there were still changes that had to be 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 experts and environmentalists 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 bill was born around two years ago, and was initially meant to be formulated by a small team of senior officials and approved in an accelerated process. However, following an outcry, the government agreed to a more comprehensive process in the Knesset committee.

The committee held a series of exhaustive hearings, during which government representatives presented the government’s position. Environmental and social organizations, meanwhile, proposed amendments to the bill which they claimed would provide a better balance between development pressures and the government’s desire to advance housing and infrastructure plans, and conservation of natural areas and the public’s right to file objections.

It seemed to be working. After hearing all the environmentalists testify, the head of the joint Knesset panel, MK Amnon Cohen (Shas), 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 also 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 hold up construction plans for years. The hope is that increasing the housing stock will lower home prices, though no government entity can say by how much, and when.

The Prime Minister’s Office sees the reform as a response to issues raised during the summer’s social protests, including the lack of affordable housing in Israel. However, while the bill calls for including “affordable housing” in building plans, it does not specify how such housing would be funded.

According to the bill, housing plans would only pass through one planning committee – the local planning committee – which would receive considerable authority to prepare “general plans” for their locales, which would replace existing regional master plans.

The bill also establishes a number of subcommittees and special infrastructure committees that would approve plans in an expedited process, and restricts the ability of the public to appeal or object to them. The bill would also limit the Environmental Protection Ministry’s ability to request environmental impact studies.

Public and environmental groups say that the regional master plans the bill wants to cancel have already allocated enough land to build many years’ worth of housing. Their position was reinforced by a committee of experts appointed by the Interior Ministry, which reached a similar conclusion.

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 building 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 transcripts and expert opinions submitted to them within a week. Planning panels could thus delay the release of information and deny the public sufficient time to respond to plans that could affect their property values or their quality of life.

“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 accepted procedures.”

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.”

Green groups: Publish building approval bill in full – Jerusalem Post

Henin asks comptroller to thoroughly examine “anti-social and anti-environmental” legislation before it goes to Knesset.

By SHARON UDASIN 02/22/2012

With a new planning and building bill slated to come to a vote in the Knesset next week, Adam Teva V’Din (Israel Union for Environmental Defense) sent a letter to the Knesset legal adviser and the Joint Economic- Internal Affairs and Environment Committee on Tuesday demanding that a complete version of the legislation be published in a timely manner.

The bill aims to restructure the process of obtaining approval for building projects across the country, including consolidating the various approval bodies into one overarching unit to make the process more efficient.

However, the environmental advocacy group said that while the Knesset has distributed different parts of the bill for public review in the past few days, many portions of the legislation have yet to be finalized. Because the different bits and pieces of the bill are actually integrated and rely heavily on one another, it is impossible to vote on the bill until its text is entirely available and all connections between parts have been made clear, Adam Teva V’Din argued, adding that a reasonable period of review for the bill in its complete form would be at least 30 working days.

In its current form, the bill contains portions that refer to additional clauses that have not yet been made public, the organization’s senior attorney, Eli Ben-Ari, wrote in the letter.

“It is important to clarify that this is not just to maintain the rights of Knesset members to perform correctly and properly the most important role imposed upon them, which is to take part in the legislative process,” Ben- Ari wrote. “The point is, above all, to safeguard the right of the general public regarding a law that is expected to influence significant aspects of life.”

The bill, he argued, will be an integral part of the country’s fabric for decades to come, and therefore must be available to both legislators and the public “without shortcuts.”

MK Dov Henin (Hadash) also expressed his dissatisfaction with the planning bill, and he wrote a letter to the state comptroller on Tuesday asking that the latter’s office perform a thorough examination of the bill before it comes to a vote next week.

During a discussion on Tuesday, Environmental Protection Ministry representatives said that minister Gilad Erdan was considering bringing the bill back to the cabinet for review, as there had not been enough time to review the new version, according to Henin’s office.

The bill, Henin said, is both “anti-social” and “anti-environmental.”

Eliminating the influence of public checks and balances, it would allow the Interior Ministry to circumvent the former planning process and authorize some construction projects with little accountability, he claimed.

Meanwhile, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority plenum called on the Knesset to refrain from removing INPA representatives from the planning committee – a stipulation the newest version of the bill makes.

According to the INPA, including parks officials in planning increases the professionalism of project development while safeguarding environmental and heritage values during construction.

Their removal would exclude parks officials from influencing the early stages of planning and would instead require them to place objections further along, causing unnecessary delays, the authority argued.

Naor Yerushalmi, executive director of green umbrella group Life and Environment and a member of the INPA plenum, contended that it would be impossible to exclude the organization from the planning process, as it is “required by virtue of the law to protect nature and landscapes.”

“The INPA plays a central and decisive role in Israel’s planning processes, and it must be involved and integrated with them from the onset,” Yerushalmi said.

“The reform, whose establishment realizes the goal of fast advancement and efficient planning processes in the state, will cause in its current form an absurd and backward situation in which the INPA will become an inhibiting factor when expressing its stance only in the later steps… instead of influencing the process from the beginning and assisting in its promotion.”