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Activists fight Netanya hotel plan they say will harm nature reserves

Ecological corridor supposed to link Poleg reserve with wildflower hub and seasonal pool deemed too small, with court set to decide if city broke planning agreement

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Natural vegetation around Poleg. (Rivka Eidelman)
Natural vegetation around Poleg. (Rivka Eidelman)

Locals say a plan to build a large hotel and shopping complex near the beach on the southern edge of Netanya does not go far enough to protect ecosystems and violates promises made by the city.

The 613 dunam (150 acre) plan for the popular Poleg beach, which was approved by local and district planning authorities in 2013, is slated to include six hotels of eight to 11 stories, as well as room for shopping, parking and a field for beach soccer.

The development will fill in almost all of the remaining open space between the Poleg Nature Reserve and the iris reserve, the latter a municipal tract of land famed for the flowering of the critically endangered coastal iris, which only grows in Israel. The iris reserve is also linked to one of Israel’s only remaining vernal (seasonal) ponds, making the area critically important from an environmental standpoint.

While the plan includes a thin ecological corridor running parallel to the sea, between the development and the public beach, critics say the ribbon of land is not only not wide enough to serve all of the animals that frequent the area, from deer to hedgehogs, but is also not long enough to actually link the nature and iris reserves in one continuous belt.

On Sunday, residents, environmental groups and others will take what they hope is a major step toward sending the entire development back to the drawing board when they appear before Lod’s District Court.

Residents, joined in their petition by Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel and the environmental law organization Adam Teva V’Din, will argue that the city’s advancement of the project violates a 2002 agreement to completely reconsider, as part of one single, holistic plan, the whole area stretching between the boundaries of the two reserves, to survey the environmental impact of the plans and to provide alternatives from which to choose. The whole plan needs to be completely redone, they say.

Ecological corridors are tracts of open space that connect “core areas” of nature reserves and national parks. They are seen as critical to ensuring that wildlife retains a high degree of mobility and genetic diversity — a key to health and resilience, the proper functioning of the web of life, and the long-term survival of species.

As the built environment across Israel increasingly encroaches upon natural areas, often forcing wild animals into uneasy contact with humans, the importance of the corridors for protecting biodiversity has only grown.

Poleg beach plan. (Netanya Municipality)

The corridor included in the Netanya plan that is being contested is around 700 meters (2,300 feet) long. It doesn’t quite reach the Poleg reserve in the south and stops some 390 meters (1,280 feet) away from the iris reserve in the north.

At its widest point, the corridor will only be about 70 meters (230 feet) wide, and even that modest easement shrinks to 25 meters (80 feet) wide where it adjoins the shoreline Bamboo Village restaurant, a city-owned property that today is one of the only existing buildings in the area.

The whole corridor is hemmed in to the east by a plaza, a long ribbon of shopping and dining establishments and a beach soccer field. To the west, toward the sea, it is bounded by a pedestrian promenade and public beach.

Furthermore, the corridor, which the city plans to mark off with low rope barriers, will be crisscrossed by planned pedestrian pathways meant to link the hotel complex to the beach. (The city rejected bridges and underpasses as too expensive.)

Near its southern end, the planned corridor will be bisected by a road close to the sealine to provides access to the restaurant.

That road is expected to be used heavily not only by suppliers to the eatery, but also by visitors to the beach. While an improvised parking area will be replaced by paved lots behind the hotels, many visitors will still use the road to drop off things like jet skis and paddleboards closer to the shore.

According to Netanya’s former city ecologist, Aviv Aviasar, the ecological corridor will be too narrow for use by larger mammals that frequent the area, such as deer, foxes and jackals.

Scientists who have written opinions to be submitted to the court on Sunday warn of the ecological dangers of cutting the Poleg and iris reserves off from one another and say that allowing pedestrian paths to cut across the corridor and bright lights, noise and even possibly pets such as dogs to disturb the creatures there, neutralizes any role it might play in protecting local flora and fauna.

Will sea turtles continue to lay eggs on the beach after construction? (Picture courtesy of Yaniv Levy, Israel National Parks Authority)

Endangered sea turtles, which currently lay eggs on the Poleg beach, may also be deterred by the lights and noise from the development

The corridor was approved on September 29 by the National Committee for the Protection of Coastal Environments, despite opposition from members representing the Environmental Protection Ministry, Israel Nature and Parks Authority, SPNI and Adam Teva V’Din.

The committee conditioned its approval on the pedestrian paths being shorter and without any lighting, and on the corridor being fenced off from the surrounding environment. It also recommended that the soccer field be relocated away from the corridor.

An aerial view of the beach with the Ramat Poleg and Ir Yamim neighborhoods behind. (Google maps)

None of this satisfied the residents and green organizations. SPNI is already advancing an appeal to a special national planning subcommittee.

For some residents, like former deputy mayor Herzel Keren, a winemaker and a leader of the campaign against the development, the stakes are no less than an indelible ecological stain on the city.

“If there’s no proper ecological corridor, there’s doubt that any of the three reserves will survive in future,” he said.

Long haul

Keren first began campaigning against development in the area in 1997, when the city published preliminary plans for the site, which he feared threatened the iris preserve near his home in the Givat Hairisim (Iris hill) neighborhood.

The area, which was then part of a network of extensive sand dunes to the south of Netanya, had been zoned a few years earlier for hotels and residential construction.

The Mayor of Netanya, Miriam Feierberg. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In 2002, Keren engineered a compromise agreement regarding the planning for the site which was accorded the status of a legal ruling a year later. It was signed, among others, by Netanya Mayor Miriam Feierberg, who still heads the city today, the Israel Lands Authority, the developers and the local and district planning committees.

The agreement preserved and even expanded the iris reserve. It also put an end to plans for residential construction closer to the shore. Ultimately, it led to the creation of an ecological underpass below a major road to allow wildlife to move between the winter pool and the iris reserve, which was only built recently.

The seasonal winter pool, Poleg. (Rika Eidelman)

The deal specified that the project had to be replanned from scratch as one single entity, to ensure that the context and environmental needs of the entire area could be taken into account.

It also defined the area to be replanned as one that reached the boundaries of the nature and iris reserves.

And it ordered that the requirements of National Plan 13, which until recently set the rules for construction in coastal areas, be adhered to. That plan called for seven different impact surveys to be carried out, including a survey of planned construction on the local environment and an examination of various alternatives from which to choose.

Irises blooming at the Poleg reserve. (Rika Eidelman)

The compromise made clear that the planners should examine the need to preserve the continuity and the ecological connection between the two reserves, the beach and the winter pool.

Opponents charge not only that the city did not carry out an environmental impact survey, but that it approved plans piecemeal instead of taking an overall view to create one.

The plans include three separate parcels, each of which is envisaged to hold two hotels. Two of the sections were sold to developers after the complex was approved in 2013, but the city has asked the Israel Lands Authority, which controls the tenders, to leave the northern section so that the plot can be used for parking, a municipal spokesperson said.

The municipality did not respond to the charge that it had violated the law by failing to provide one single plan.

A municipal statement said that National Plan 13 allowed an authority to dispense with surveys. In all events, it pointed out, it was superseded in 2019 by National Plan 6/13 for the Netanya Coast and according to that, the city’s plan had received full approval.

Rani Aloush, an opposition member of the city council, disputed this, saying that the city never asked to be exempt from the surveys, as it should have done within the framework of National Plan 13, which was in force in 2002 when the compromise was reached and in 2013 when the hotels were approved by national authorities.

Activists complain that when the city drew the boundaries for the new plan, it left out the restaurant and access road as well as land adjacent to the Poleg reserve in the south, which incorporates the Poleg stream.

Because planning bodies such as the National Committee for the Protection of Coastal Environments can only review areas within a plan’s boundaries, that meant that it would not consider several points concerning the restaurant, the road and the stream that opponents say should have been taken into account, such as the northern movement of the area where the stream dumps into the sea.

A winter storm engulfs the Bamboo Village on Poleg beach. The city has since built fences and sand mounds to try to protect it. (Rika Eidelman)

Rika Eidelman, a city resident, thought planners should have thought about what will happen should a tsunami hit the coast – the hotel complex and its long wall of shops and eateries form a barrier that could make it difficult for the thousand of beachgoers to escape to higher ground, she charged. When she raised this issue, the city erected tsunami warning signs, she said, but did nothing to alter the plans.

Aloush, the city council member, told the Times of Israel that he only discovered earlier this year that the city was “behaving as if the court order didn’t exist,” by continuing to plan the site in sections rather than as one whole, and by not carrying out a single environmental survey.

“I discovered that the Poleg stream was not in the plan and painstakingly reviewed scores of plans and decisions,” he said. “When the city didn’t respond to my inquiries, I went to the residents. At first, they didn’t believe what I told them.”

Asked why the city’s alleged violations of the compromise deal were not uncovered when the plans were going through the approval process in 2013, Aloush said it had not occurred to anyone that the authority would act anything other than properly.

Keren, who served five terms on the city council before retiring two years ago, also did not apparently notice that the city was not keeping to the deal he himself had engineered. Today, he is furious, and accuses the city of having hidden the agreement from relevant committees.

“When we asked whether Netanya carried out everything set out in the compromise, their answer in writing was yes,” said Keren, who has filed more than 30 court petitions in his 35 years of public service, most of them for environmental issues, but some also related to good governance.

“A few months ago, we learned that the city had not done the surveys and had planned this sensitive area [the corridor] without professional considerations and while completely ignoring the Poleg stream,” he added.

A statement from the city noted that it had made many changes to the plan over the years. This included preserving 120 dunams (30 acres) of open land that had previously been earmarked for building, enlarging the iris reserve, scrapping residential buildings close to the shoreline, reducing the size of the hotels, increasing the public areas by widening the strip of beach and adding the ecological corridor.

“Netanya acts and does everything in accordance with its legal obligation and the plan that is in force, in order to prevent any claim for compensation by any party against it for not carrying out the development that it is obliged to carry out,” the statement said.

It also noted that the petitioners should be seeking relief elsewhere.

“We emphasize that the municipality is not a party to the dispute between the residents seeking to cancel the hotels and the landowners, ie. the State of Israel. Thus, the conduct in court, if at all, should be against the landowners only.”

‘No need for more hotels, malls’

The hotel plan is moving ahead at a time when several other shoreside development projects have been scrapped, the most notable of which was at the Palmachim beach in central Israel.

Kite surfers on Poleg beach. (Rika Eidelman)

Some city residents have questioned the need for new hotels or shops in the area, given existing hotels and malls, or whether the project could not be relocated to an area east, inside the existing neighborhood of Ir Yamim adjacent to the hotel.

“It might be a lovely plan, but it’s no longer appropriate,” said Eidelman, who has lived in Netanya for close to 50 years.

Ir Yamim has speedily risen out of the sands south of Netanya over the last 15 years, its orderly grid of boulevards bounding row after row of residential towers wedged between the Poleg Reserve and the iris reserve. Once the hotels go up, what little corridor was left for wildlife between the reserves will shrink even further.

Crowds enjoy the Poleg Beach, October 9 2021. (Rika Eidelman)

In its statement, the city noted that the hotel plan had been drawn up when Ir Yamim was still sand dunes.

“It is a pity that the petitioners are misleading the residents into thinking that the hotels can be canceled, since this plan was well known for many years before even one housing unit was built in the neighborhood [of Ir Yamim],” it said.

Nonetheless, residents, many of whom are native English speakers who have been drawn to the area in recent years, still bemoan what may happen to the city’s ecological gems once the new development goes up.

“The experience of living in North America puts you in touch with the wild,” said Ellen Rose, who immigrated to Israel from Canada 50 years ago. “When you see so much of it disappearing in a country you love, it’s normal to take action.”

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