Erdan vows to foil Timna valley hotel complex

Committee-approved buildings there will cause ‘enormous, irreversible damage,’ says green group.

Timna Sasgon Valley 311 (photo credit: Dov Greenblat/SPNI)
Timna Sasgon Valley 311
(photo credit: Dov Greenblat/SPNI)
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.