Israelis fighting to keep coastline from developers

JERUSALEM — There's good news for beach lovers in Israel: The battle to stop developers and coastal city governments from turning the country's seashore into one long "real-estate marina" is going great guns.

This fall, a team of planners and engineers appointed by the Interior Ministry recommended freezing marina construction in Israel for the next five years. The panel, headed by former Tel Aviv city engineer Shammai Assif, called for an end to the practice of allowing marinas to be built as Trojan horses for grand real-estate projects on the shore.

"The beaches belong to the public, and they have to be preserved," said civil engineer Alon Perlman, a member of the panel.

The report comes on the heels of a string of court victories by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense (IUED), which has successfully challenged the plans for real-estate marinas in Tel Aviv and Haifa, as well as the expansion of the Herzliya marina.

Citizens' groups and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel have given the Haifa Municipality terrible headaches over a planned high-rise marina in the Bat Galim area.

"We've been far more successful than we ever expected to be," said Haim Raz, a Bat Galim resident and leader of the protests.

Real-estate marinas are on the drawing board in Haifa, Tel Aviv, Netanya, Nahariya and Bat Yam. The existing ones in Ashkelon, Ashdod and Herzliya were built in the late '80s and early '90s. There are older, more modest marinas with just a few facilities and restaurants at Gordon Beach in Tel Aviv, the Kishon River in Haifa Bay and Akko.

With about half of Israel's 112-mile coast already given over to power plants, harbors and naval bases, the real-estate marinas that developers, mayors and city council members are dreaming of could make nearly all of Israel's beaches off-limits to the public, said Danny Fisch, IUED director.

The most ambitious plan of all, the Bat Galim project, has been sent back to the National Planning and Building Council, Israel's highest planning authority, following an IUED challenge in Haifa District Court.

Fisch contended that every real-estate marina built in the last decade has privatized sections of the beach — for developers who profit from the high-rise projects, and for the wealthy residents who purchase the apartments.

"The beaches cannot be traversed where the real-estate marinas go up," he said.

When such building occurs, the view of the sea is often obscured by the high-rises. Also, sandstone bluffs that line the beach are usually destroyed to make way for apartment buildings.

The Interior Ministry report added that the marinas, especially the one in Ashdod, even thin out the beaches by obstructing the natural shifting of sand from Egypt to Israel.

That was not the intent of the master plan for coastal development, which passed in 1983, Fisch said. That plan banned construction within 330 feet of the water — unless there was a strong case for a variance. And if construction was permitted, the plan limited projects to those that served the public, like sports and tourism facilities, not private apartment buildings.

But developers, aided by friendly coastal city governments, got around these limitations by using marinas — whose boat berths, obviously, must be built not only within 330 feet of the water, but in the water — as a wedge to win variances and building permits on the coast, Fisch said.

The apartment buildings put up on what used to be public beaches are officially called "apartment hotels" to meet the criterion for "tourist facilities," but this is a dodge, Fisch said. "In fact, all the apartments are sold to private owners."

Government officials with any regard for the environment "knew this was ruining the beaches," he added, but they were overpowered at the local and national level by developers and their legislative patrons.

Then, two years ago, the anti-marina forces escalated from street protests and indignant remarks by a few politicians to court challenges.

The IUED won in succession a Tel Aviv District Court case against the Tel Aviv Municipality's plans for a real-estate marina near Reading; a Tel Aviv District Court case against plans to destroy the sandstone bluffs on the Herzliya beach to expand the marina; a Haifa District Court case against plans to construct five more high-rise apartment buildings in addition to the one already built at Carmel Beach; and a Haifa District Court case against plans for the envisioned Haifa Marina.

These court challenges, however, have not killed off plans for marinas and beachfront high-rises.

In Fisch's view, the policy paper initiated by the Interior Ministry is "a red flag for developers. The ministry took the essence of the court decisions and adapted them to the coastal development master plan." He added that later this month, the IUED intends to push forward Knesset legislation to further safeguard the public's interest on the beaches.