Planners override opposition, approve 5,000 homes on pastoral Jerusalem hill

Committee ratifies major neighborhood in unspoiled Reches Lavan; agriculture minister pledges to prevent uprooting of trees, but activists say they will appeal to courts

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter

Young people enjoy a hot summer's day at the Ein Lavan Spring in the Jerusalem hills, August 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Young people enjoy a hot summer's day at the Ein Lavan Spring in the Jerusalem hills, August 30, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An appeals committee on Thursday approved plans to build some 5,000 residential units at Reches Lavan, a popular, pastoral site of agricultural terraces and springs just west of Jerusalem.

Reches Lavan (White Ridge) — named for its light, chalky rock — is located near the Jerusalem Zoo and the southwest neighborhoods of Kiryat Hayovel, Givat Masua and Ein Kerem, and Moshav Ora just outside the city.

Home to Mediterranean vegetation and large mammals such as mountain gazelles and hyenas, the whole area, with its natural springs and spring-fed pools, serves as a green backyard for Jerusalemites and a popular weekend meeting place for young people.

An appeal was lodged by several bodies and individuals against the district planning committee’s decision to approve the project in July 2019. They petitioned the appeals subcommittee of the National Planning Council, the highest planning body to which appeals can be submitted.

After the rejection of their appeal, activists are now pledging to take their case to the courts. They fear that the planners will start by building on Reches Lavan before moving on to build on other hills — Mount Harat, Mitzpe Naftoah in Ramot, the slopes of Moshav Ora and a spur near Hadassah Hospital, Ein Kerem, one ridge at a time.

Reches Lavan, or White Ridge, west of Jerusalem. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

Agriculture Minister Alon Schuster reiterated Thursday that he would not approve the uprooting of 11,000 trees to build the neighborhood. It remains unclear whether this will enable him to stop the entire project from going ahead.

While allowing the plans to go forward, the appeals subcommittee of the National Planning Council ordered that towers designed for a commercial area just outside Moshav Ora be reduced to a maximum of 15 stories.

It rejected claims that the project will damage area springs.

Plans call for the construction of 5,250 residential units, in buildings of five to 12 stories high, along with 300 hotel rooms and commercial space, on the ridge. Planners are also already at work on a four-lane highway that will cut through the area, forming part of a western ring road.

Some 15,000 have signed a petition against the project.

Reches Lavan, or White Ridge, east of Jerusalem. (Dov Greenblat, Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel)

Many attempts to build out into the western Judean Hills have risen and fallen over the years.

This time, the push for increased building in the city is coming from the government, or more precisely, from the Committee for Preferred Housing Sites, set up in 2014 to fast-track planning and cut red tape.

Israel’s population is set to double in 30 years in a dot of a country, just a little bigger than New Jersey in the US or Wales in the UK, that already has one of the highest population densities in the West and a rapidly depleting supply of available land for housing.

In a top-down fashion, the Committee for Preferred Housing Sites has approved the construction of 1.5 million housing units countrywide by 2040, 297,000 of them in the Jerusalem District.

The Jerusalem district office of the Society for the Preservation of Nature in Israel (SPNI) has researched 4,000 plans and determined that this goal can be met without digging up the local countryside.

A Google Earth screenshot of the Jerusalem Hills west of Jerusalem. Reches Lavan is marked in red.

The problem is that replacing slums in inner-city areas with new building offers limited profit — and because the government has so far not been willing to incentivize developers financially (in the form of grants, subsidies or tax reliefs), it is offering instead what it calls “complementary land” on which such developers can make more money.

The compensatory land idea allows the state to sell to one or more developers land that it owns within the boundaries of a particular local authority. The developers buy the land in the knowledge that the council has committed to building a certain number of apartments.

The deal, usually for several high-rise buildings, is attractive to the building companies because of the profits to be made from the sale of so many units. The local council benefits because the government transfers to it some of the earnings from the sale of the land to allow for the creation of new infrastructure. It is presented as a win-win.

Around half of the plots on Reches Lavan have been earmarked for compensatory land, some of them to encourage developers to carry out renewal in the notoriously run-down Nurit and Stern streets of Ir Ganim near Kiryat Hayovel. The other half, Amnon (Ami) Arbel, deputy director of the city’s planning department, told a Knesset committee in June, will provide housing for which there is no space in the city.

Old apartment buildings in the poor neighborhood of Ir Ganim in southwest Jerusalem, February 27, 2017. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

In its Thursday judgement, the appeals subcommittee called on the authorities to ensure that the calculation for the amount of compensatory land needed is up to date.

SPNI, which wants the entire area of the springs to be declared a nature reserve, responded to Thursday’s decision by quoting the words of the appeals subcommittee chairperson Shimrit Golan, who wrote in Thursday’s decision that “There is no dispute that development and construction on Reches Lavan has a very high environmental cost.”

Said the SPNI, “We believe that there is nothing to add, beyond that.

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