Nature caught in a vise in Netanya

Public open areas like the Argaman Iris Reserve and the Winter Pond are fighting to survive as developers move in.

Netanyadev'p521 (photo credit: Maurice Picow)
(photo credit: Maurice Picow)
People come by the thousands every year to the city of Netanya to see the lovely purple flowers belonging to a species of iris known as the Wild Purple or Argaman Iris. Found in only a few parts of Israel, including a small area in southern Netanya, these perennial flowers, which bloom only during a two-week period in mid-February, are being squeezed out by large residential building projects located only 200 meters from where the small nature reserve containing them is located.
The irises, along with other nature sites in this coastal city, have to compete for space with housing construction projects that include numbers of skyscraper- high apartment buildings, sport centers, and a gallery-style shopping mall now under construction. As a result, the small nature reserves are now confined to 400-600 dunam parcels of land wedged between the two housing projects and the city’s beachfront.
Two of central Israel’s most popular natural attractions, the Argaman Iris Reserve and the Winter Pond Park (shlulit hahoref in Hebrew) are located within a kilometer of each other in that part of southern Netanya where “mega” housing projects are under way at Ir Yamim, next to the Ramat Poleg quarter, and the newer Agamim housing project, next door to the Winter Pond, just north of Ir Yamim.
Metro went to find out the current situation of these and other nature sites in the country’s fifth-largest city.
Netanya has other “green” or natural sites, including the seaside sandstone cliffs between the coastal area just west of the Argaman Iris site, continuing past the northern edge of the city. Rounding out the list is the Netanya Forest, next door to the Netanya Academic College in the Kiryat Sharon quarter; and the Nahal Poleg estuary, the city’s only “official” protected nature reserve.
“Neither the Argaman Iris site, nor the Netanya Forest, nor the Winter Pond are protected nature sites,” says Alon Rothschild, in charge of Environmental Protection and Natural Sites in the Central Region for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).
Speaking recently with Metro, Rothschild adds that the Winter Pond, once a giant open space and now wedged between a playground and park built by the Netanya Municipality on one side and Agamim on the other, has become nothing more than a large park.
“Twenty years ago, there were plans to build housing projects over nearly 100 percent of the Winter Pond’s entire area, including much of what is now a park,” he says.
The site, which has been entirely closed off by a metal fence, covers more than 600 dunams, and includes the marshy lake, surrounded by giant eucalyptus trees planted by the British more than 80 years ago to help drain what was then a swamp.
“Three years ago, the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED) succeeded with a petition to limit building on this site, including three buildings that were to be constructed on grounds now occupied by the park,” says Rothschild.
Efforts by environmentalists, including the SPNI and the IUED, have not been entirely successful, however; the result is the huge housing project, Agamim, being constructed just east of the park.
Walking through this new construction site, one notices the many billboard-size signs erected by several real-estate development companies to entice prospective buyers to purchase apartments in projects being advertised as “close to both lakes and the seashore.”
This “natural tranquility” includes illustrations of the Winter Pond being full of water – which it is not now, unfortunately, due to a lack of rain; and with ducks and other waterfowl flying off it. The presence of wildlife such as crows and ducks at the site is true, however; and even a flock of mallard ducks could be recently observed enjoying themselves in a marshy area in the center of the pond.
The SPNI’s Rothschild remains skeptical about the way the local municipality is dealing with preserving the various natural animal and plant species indigenous to these nature sites, especially the Winter Pond and Argaman Iris sites.
“Two years ago, a survey was made of these sites to determine their situation and what needs to be done to protect them. The building of trails, especially the bike trails at the Winter Pond, is very disturbing to the natural harmony of the sites,” he says.
“At the Winter Pond,” he adds, “there has been a great loss of natural flora and animal life due to the use of fertilizers that are absorbed into the soil, as well as into the pond, causing other, less desirable plants to proliferate.”
As noted, the only officially protected nature site in Netanya is the Nahal Poleg estuary, where sea turtles still come to lay their eggs. Despite this official recognition, however, the estuary is also “squeezed” in between the developing Green Beach beachfront – with its newly resurfaced road and expanded parking lot – and the Wingate Institute sport complex, which includes an army base.
The Green Beach site is expanding, and hotels are slated to be built on a parcel of land between the beachfront and the new Ir Yamim residential quarter, which includes the construction of a gallery-style shopping mall.
Metro interviewed representatives of some of the construction companies involved in Ir Yamim, one of Israel’s largest residential housing construction projects, to find out how these projects have been planned to exist in harmony with the area’s nature sites.
Dalia Katsiri, a sales representative for the Dimri on- Sea project, spoke in glowing terms of efforts by real estate development companies like hers to coexist with sites like the Argaman Iris Reserve just west of Ir Yamim.
“Netanya is fortunate to have two of the most attractive nature sites in the Sharon region: the Argaman Iris site and the Winter Pond; both of which are just down the road,” she says.
Regarding the increase in mega building projects, Katsiri says that efforts are being made by developers to create more harmony with natural sites; and that the Iris site is designated to be a protected site ”forever.”
Katsiri adds that the entire Ir Yamim project, when finished, will have around 5,000 housing units.
“Due to so many new families living in this area, Ir Yamim is being constructed to include a number of green belts, including a promenade which, already partially completed, is enabling people to walk directly to the beachfront.”
Katsiri spoke very highly of the municipality’s efforts to make Netanya a “green” city.
“Look at what it has already done to improve the green quality of this city. We now have large parks like the one at the Winter Pond and a landscaped seafront promenade stretching almost uninterruptedly from Nitza Boulevard [in north Netanya] to Beit Goldmitz [near the Winter Pond].”
Another development project spokesman, Asaf Nir, project manager for Shikun Uvinui and Azorim’s Ir Yamim housing project, went into more detail as to how these projects are coexisting with nature. Pointing to an area map in which all the completed projects are included, Nir shows Metro the “green aspect” of the project:
“Here is the shopping mall, which will be Israel’s first green mall when finished; where the sports center and a school will be. There is also a nice park” – he points to a large green circle in the center of project map – “and green pathways going all the way to the sea, as well as east and west. Here is a parking lot [in an area just outside the Iris site] exclusively for visitors to the Irisim nature reserve.”
Asked about proposed plans to build hotels by Ir Yamim, as well as a marina, Nir replies that both the hotels and the marina are “on hold” for the time being.
“The infrastructure for the hotels is very expensive, and no development company has yet offered to do this project. As for the marina, there are just too many environmental issues involved; especially in regard to the Nahal Poleg reserve,” he says.
According to Nir, one of his company’s upcoming residential projects in Ir Yamim will include a number of green innovations such as water-conserving devices in all apartments, energy-efficient air conditioning systems, and the installation of solar energy panels that will create electricity and not just heat water.
“The Shikun Uvinui Company is going to build more of these green building projects even though they are 15% more expensive than regular building construction,” Nir says. Asked if people looking for apartments in these projects are asking about green construction innovations, Nir responds happily: “Yes, between 25% and 30% of the people who come here to purchase apartments ask about green building installations.”
The SPNI’s Rothschild is less positive regarding the building companies’ efforts to “go green.”
“For the most part, these parks and green belts are cosmetic only. There are just too many examples of nature sites being reduced or even eliminated by construction projects – something which could have happened at the Winter Pond, and could still happen at the Iris site,” he says.
Sara Gazit, parks and infrastructure architect for the Netanya Municipality, is in charge of the environmental and ecological planning of parks and nature sites in the city. The four nature sites in Netanya that her department is involved with are the Winter Pond, the Argaman Iris site, the Netanya Forest in the Kiryat Sharon quarter, and the sandstone sea cliffs which stretch from the Argaman Beach site to the Sironit Beach in central Netanya.
The Netanya Forest, which is not as well known as the others, covers 300 dunams and is located between the Netanya Academic college, on one side, and a number on high-rise apartment buildings on the other. The forest was the subject of a survey conducted by the Jewish National Fund a year and a half ago to study the plant and animal life found there. The JNF is in charge of managing the site.
A prominent ecologist, Dr. Ron Frumkin, was in charge of the study, which noted and photographed the flora and fauna found in the area, some considered unique to the region.
“The continuing project dealing with this site is involved with how to protect it from damage from visiting animals, including dogs, horses and donkeys – as well as people,” he says.
“The forest has a number of unusual plant species, especially flowers. An ornate iron fence has been built around the site to keep cars and all-terrain vehicles from entering,” notes Gazit.
The forest, which includes a small grove of oak trees not normally found in the Sharon region, is also being squeezed by housing and commercial projects that almost completely surround it, causing to resemble a “mini-Central Park,” due to the high-rise buildings surrounding it.
Although the JNF oversees ecological issues in the forest, the actual work there is carried out by the municipality.
“This is a relatively new project, compared to others like the Iris site and Winter Pond. An ecological survey was also conducted for the Winter Pond; that was done together with “the green people” [the SPNI and others] to decide what needs to be done to protect and maintain these sites,” Gazit adds.
“There is often a conflict between the recreational needs of the citizens of Netanya and the nature protection people,” Gazit notes. She is referring to the park built by the municipality on the west side of the pond which includes playground equipment, picnic areas and a future minigolf course. Parts of the area around the pond are being left in their natural state, expect for bicycle and pedestrian paths.
“The SPNI does not want all the bike trails there, claiming that would disturb the natural aspects of the site,” she says. “But since most of Netanya’s residents – it’s a city of over 208,000 – live in condominium apartments, they need open spaces to go to. The bike trails are also meant to keep people from damaging the natural plant life by walking overland.”
Gazit adds that the gates of the park are locked at night to keep people from entering unlawfully and causing damage.
The Argaman Iris site, which encompasses 400 dunams, was originally part of plans to build hotels “on top” of the present site, says the SPNI’s Rothschild.
These were changed “as a result of our intense lobbying efforts,” leading to its designation as a natural site with no construction projects planned there.
One of the site’s main problems is coping with the large number of people who come to see the irises in bloom during a two-week period in February. Another problem is “invading” plant life that competes with the iris and other native species for space.
“We have to remove these invasive plants from the site so the natural species can thrive,” says Rothschild.
The cliffs and their erosion by wind and sea is a big concern for the municipality, according to Gazit.
“We received NIS 600,000 for a study on what is needed to preserve the cliffs. But NIS 250 million are required to preserve the cliffs – and the beachfront, which suffers from a lack of sand in many places.”
A team is sent out periodically to check the situation of the cliffs between the Sironit and Argaman beaches.
“Natural erosion is caused mostly by rising seas, and a special sea promenade was built to help strengthen the cliffs. We want to keep the sea away from the cliffs by building a number of offshore bunkers to stop the force of the waves and thereby protect the cliffs,” says Gazit.
An annual budget of NIS 26m. is allocated annually to repair the cliffs when parts of them fall into the sea. “We allocate a sum of NIS 6m. just to pay compensation for damage caused by the falling cliffs,” Gazit adds.
A ”master plan” will cover Netanya’s coastal areas. But residential property built near the cliffs, like the new Island apartment hotel, for example, is not covered under the city’s budget.
“Construction projects like these, planned more than 20 years ago, were carried out by private people over whom we have no control,” Gazit says.
Not taking sufficient measures to maintain the cliffs and beach areas has resulted in severe harm – especially during the winter of 2004-5, when violent storms caused significant damage.
“The cliffs have retreated by between 12 and 25 meters from where they were in 1958, when studies began,” Gazit notes. “The sea bunkers, like those in Netanya’s center, are very important in retarding damage to the cliffs.”
Gazit sees a lot more action ahead on the part of environmental groups, especially green organizations, to help preserve the natural sites.
“Until 10 years ago, we at the municipality did not have ecologists to advise us on what needs to be done to maintain these natural sites. Since then, we have conducted surveys and made a lot of changes to area building plans in order to take the ecological situation into consideration in these natural sites.
“The municipality also has plans to build a very large park of 5,000 dunams in Kiryat Sharon, between the Vatikim neighborhood and the coastal highway. But we need permission from both the Lev Hasharon regional council and the government in order to undertake the project. There is also the question of funds being available.”
Gazit sums up the municipality’s efforts in preserving the city’s natural sites: “Although a lot of work has already been done on preserving these nature sites, a lot more needs doing. And this takes money.”