District and Local Plans

Representatives of the Minister of the Environment are statutory members of the District Commissions and active participants in many sub-committees as well. They present environmental opinions to the commissions, discuss environmental objections during the plan approval process, identify plans and projects which require the preparation of environmental impact statements, and follow-up on the fulfillment of instructions incorporated into the plan regulations. As members of the decision-making body, their input enables the integration of environmental considerations into the everyday decisions of the District Commissions.

Regional masterplans in various parts of the country are currently being updated and amended to include environmental elements. The northern district (the Galilee), one of the most complex regions in terms of the composition of its residents, settlements, and landscape and environmental assets, provides one such example. While the principal objective of this regional masterplan is to engender a process of rapid and efficient socio-economic development in the area, the amendment to the masterplan

(still in deliberation) includes important environmental considerations. Most importantly, it establishes the protection of nature, landscape and the environment as one of its six objectives.

The northern district masterplan is accompanied by four maps:

* A planning and development policy map which reflects, inter alia, environmental policies. It divides the district into strategic areas whose determination is largely based on environmental considerations.
* A land-use map, where regulations include environmental instructions.
* An environmental guidelines map which divides the district into land areas in accordance with six levels of sensitivity. The parallel chapter in the regulations specifies development restrictions for each sensitivity level.
* A map of engineering and infrastructure systems which includes, inter alia, waste disposal sites, airports, water reservoirs, a wind energy farm, roads and quarries.

The plan exemplifies the growing importance currently being accorded to environmental considerations in regional planning.

On the local level, adherence to planning schemes proceeds largely through permit requirements. No externally-visible work related to roads or buildings can be initiated without a building permit. The Local Planning and Building Commissions decide on applications for development, building permits, and action against illegal building. Planners from local environmental units or town associations for environmental quality participate in most Local Commissions in an advisory capacity, providing opinions and suggestions on environmental issues.

Rapid Development and Environmental Planning

The challenges of immigrant absorption and the responsibility of providing a roof for each new immigrant stood at the center of planning in Israel in the early 1990s. While the National Outline Scheme for Immigrant Absorption provides a positive example of the incorporation of environmental aspects in planning decisions, environmental mistakes were not always avoided in other areas. On the district and local levels, environmental aspects were at times sidestepped as development pressures mounted.

The Planning and Building Processes Law, a two-year emergency order enacted by the Knesset in mid-1990, provides one example of the dangers of hasty decision-making. Normally, environmental planning is based on the careful and detailed assessment of the environmental impacts of building and development proposals. However, the pressing need to provide housing and employment to a massive wave of new immigrants led the Knesset to enact the emergency order in order to accelerate the approval process for residential construction and to create new and less cumbersome planning institutions. Although provisions were made for the inclusion of a representative of the Minister of the Environment as a full member of both residential and industrial emergency building committees, hasty decisions allowed for the approval of some residential units in sites exposed to environmental nuisances or in sites lacking requisite public services. The most acute environmental problem generated by rapid development was the lack of sewage treatment facilities. The emergency order, extended in recent years as a means of coping with the country’s housing shortage, has been opposed by all of Israel’s green groups.

In June 1994, the government decided to significantly accelerate residential building throughout the country in order to better cope with rising housing costs and shortages. In light of past mistakes, however, the government acquiesced to a request by the Minister of the Environment to include an environmental clause in the housing program stipulating that building permits for new residential neighborhoods will not be granted until the completion of sewage and solid waste disposal facilities and public transportation systems. The ministry opposes residential building in areas exposed to environmental pollution and in areas of high natural or landscape value; it has recommended, instead, that new settlements be directed at sparsely populated areas, such as the Negev, and that high-rise building be introduced into the central region so as to avoid urban sprawl and preserve open space land reserves.

Throughout the years, various attempts have been made to shorten approval processes in Israel’s planning authorities. A 1988 amendment, for example, sets a strict time limit on the approval of plans once they are declared for deposit. Another significant amendment requires planning authorities to state their policies in advance, so as to inform developers of requirements and to allow them to formulate permit applications in accordance with stated policies. While the amendment only refers to building permits at present, the same philosophy, if successful, will be extended to plans. Consequently, the environmental implications of projects will be anticipated in advance, and environmental planning policies will be issued to developers on request.

In the midst of accelerated development, one accomplishment deserves special mention: increased awareness of the importance of open space landscape preservation. A breakthrough was achieved with the establishment of a think team in 1990composed of representatives of Israel’s major nature and environmental bodies to classify the country’s entire open space landscape into characteristic landscape units according to criteria relating to the totality of their attributes and functions. This classification was accompanied by recommendations for appropriate levels and features for the protection/development of each landscape unit. The open landscape classification maps were integrated into the National Outline Scheme for Immigrant Absorption and will continue to be used in environmental lobbying and conservation campaigns.