Plans to reform ILA threaten country's open spaces, lobby says

Newly formed coalition also fights to increase authority of the National Infrastructure Planning Committee.

While reforming the Israel Lands Administration (ILA) is necessary, the proposed elements of the reform as it stands now constitute a clear threat to the country's open spaces, the Knesset Social-Environmental Lobby declared on Tuesday. During a meeting at the Knesset, the lobby formed a coalition with environmental groups to fight to change the reform, which is set to be passed as part of the Economic Arrangements Law accompanying the state budget. Prof. Yoav Sagi, head of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI)'s Open Landscape Institute (OLI), outlined the threat. "According to the bill, the idea is to replace the administration with an authority. However, the governing council of the authority would only be comprised of government and JNF representatives [without representatives of the public]," Sagi said. "Moreover, instead of leasing the land, the reform calls for selling the land to private buyers who are allowed to develop it as long as there are no other specific uses for it as designated by formal plans," and this could include many open spaces, he continued. SPNI initiated the meeting to figure out how to first stop the reform from being passed in the arrangements law, and then correct the deficiencies in the current plan. The newly formed coalition will also fight increasing the authority of the National Infrastructure Planning Committee, which is supposed to fast-track major infrastructure projects through the planning process. There is currently a proposal in the Economics Arrangements Law to increase its responsibility to include housing projects of 250 units and above. Taken together, the two reforms would enable private real estate developers to buy up land and develop it, including the country's open spaces. The infrastructures committee reform was a coalition agreement between the Likud and Shas, lobby co-chairman MK Ophir Paz-Pines (Labor) noted. Shas, which holds both the Interior Ministry and the Knesset Internal Affairs Committee, secured the agreement to solve the severe housing crunch among its constituents. The other lobby co-chairman, MK Dov Henin (Hadash), said the coalition needed to focus on how it presented its message to the public. "We are very much in favor of reforming the ILA and the national infrastructures committee. There is much that can be fixed. When the average citizen hears 'reform,' they think perhaps it will help them. But that's just the point: This reform actually hurts the public rather than making planning processes more accessible," he said. Iris Hahn of OLI contended that the national infrastructures committee was superfluous. Hahn represents the environmental organizations on the committee. "According to our study, the committee did not fast-track the process at all. What did happen was that plans were given budgetary preference, even though they weren't always the most important plans," she said. Dina Rachevski, who heads an NGO of architects and planners, noted that when the committee gave its approval, it also forced the local authorities to issue all the necessary permits, thus removing another layer of the normal planning process. Hahn also contended that opening up the land to private ownership could encourage developers to hoard land to drive up prices, which would force the conversion of open spaces into land earmarked for development. Alona Sheafer (Karo), Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan's chief of staff, assured the coalition that Erdan was opposed to the reforms and was doing what he could to change them. At the conclusion of the meeting, Paz-Pines decided that the coalition would send a letter to Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin, asking him to remove the ILA reform from the Economic Arrangements Law and give the reform its own longer time frame. He also suggested that the coalition reach out to the interior, environmental protection, and agriculture ministers and to the Union of Local Authorities to bring them into the "long battle" to ensure a proper reform for the ILA and the national infrastructures committee.