Court stymies Timna hotel development

The Beersheba Court for Procedural Matters has stopped plans for the construction of a huge hotel complex at the Timna National Park and has ordered the planners back to the drawing board, reports But the court refused to cancel the project altogether, saying that the planners should order an objective study of the project's environmental impact that would guide them in designing the size and layout of any hotel. According to the report, a national master plan to turn the Timna Valley into a tourism and leisure zone, complete with hotels, was first aired in 1996. The Timna Valley, some 30 kilometers north of Eilat, is famed for its natural sandstone formations (among them King Solomon's Pillars) and ancient copper mines, dating from 4,000 BCE and believed to be the world's oldest copper mines. In 2006, the Southern District Planning and Construction Committee approved plans for a hotel in the area. But in March 2008, the Israeli Union for Environmental Defense ("Adam, Teva ve'Din") and six residents of various kibbutzim in the area filed an appeal to the court against the decision, saying that the project was being planned as bigger than approved by the District Committee, and that the National Planning and Construction Council had never even discussed it. In response, the District and Local Planning committees together with a group of business entrepreneurs who plan to build the hotel said that the appeal should be rejected because the organization and the residents had waited too long before filing it. Judge Neal Hendel ruled in favor of the environmentalists and issued an interim order against any hotel. He said there was a significant gap between the original plan, which spoke of building on a 24-dunam site, and the current plan, which was speaking about building on a 42-dunam site. He also said the District Committee had ignored its obligation to hold discussions on the issue, and that this was "a serious blow to the rule of law, especially in light of the special value of the area." But the judge said he could not justify canceling the project entirely, as a hotel was part of the national plan envisaged in 1996. He said the District Committee should discuss the issue as quickly as possible, but first should order an objective environmental impact study that would canvas the optimal size and layout of the hotel. He said this would enable discussions to take place "through the prism of environmental quality." Hendel said the committee could then discuss whether the plans should be canceled, changed or left as they were. A spokesman for the IUED said the decision was an important precedent that meant that old plans that were "not appropriate to the spirit of the times" did not necessarily have to be carried out. "This decision should be used as a warning signal to entrepreneurs who aim to harm nature and views through the use of old plans," he said. A spokesman for the entrepreneurial group aiming to build the hotel also welcomed the court's decision, saying that it meant that a hotel could ultimately be built in the area.