Fears over plan to develop valley

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 January, 2007, 12:00am

Proposed development in country park a threat to rare plants and animals, environmentalists say

Environmentalists have expressed reservations over plans to develop a valley in the heart of the Pat Sin Leng Country Park, saying construction work and the subsequent increase in traffic would damage the ecologically sensitive area.

They say Sha Lo Tung's diverse fauna and flora - the area is home to scores of dragonfly and butterfly species - will be threatened if the government rushes to approve any public-private-partnership plan.

The Sha Lo Tung Development Company has proposed levelling some hills in the valley to build a Buddhist retreat centre and a columbarium able to hold 60,000 urns. In return, it would set up a HK$100 million trust fund for conservation of the valley, to be managed by environmental group Green Power.

The company wants to swap the land it owns in the valley for a plot in the green belt, which is largely in government hands, on which it would build. The plan would require doubling the single-lane road linking the valley with Ting Kok near Tai Po.

The valley is one of 12 ecologically important sites identified by the government in a 2004 plan to encourage green groups to work with developers to strike a balance between conservation and development.

An Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department survey showed 68 of the city's 106 species of dragonfly can be found in Sha Lo Tung, and that 159 species of butterfly, including two rare ones, have been spotted in the area. More than 10 species of fish are found in the valley's streams, among them the rare black paradise fish.

Man Chi-sum, chief executive officer of Green Power, said the deal was like exchanging '90 per cent of land with 10 per cent of land. Unfortunately, the Planning Department and the Lands Department opposed the proposal.'

Company executives had visited Kyoto in Japan to learn about building the columbarium and pledged that measures would be taken to minimise the environmental impact. 'For example, people going to the Buddhist centre will be allowed to burn only one incense stick when visiting the urn niches,' Dr Man said.

But Ruy Barretto, a barrister who specialises in environmental law and a Tai Po resident, opposes any form of development at Sha Lo Tung and the road widening.

'Sha Lo Tung is at the heart of the Pat Sin Leng Country Park. There shouldn't be any development.' he said.

'The Planning Department is correct to point out [the proposal] violates planning intentions.'

Mr Barretto supports a land exchange, but says the site the company receives in return should be outside the valley. 'The proposed development area shouldn't be in a green belt. The government should upgrade its zoning for stronger protection,' he said.

Lister Cheung Lai-ping, chief executive officer of the Conservancy Association, said: 'The government has to choose between hurting nature and continuing to see the site neglected.'

The association has teamed up with New World Development to turn Mau Ping and Mui Tsz Lam in Ma On Shan into a home for the elderly and a nature reserve.

Ms Cheung acknowledged this proposal was also far from ideal.

'The problem is that when you ask developers to come up with proposals, they will maximise development and minimise conservation. But the policy's aim is the opposite and looks for limited development. The government should not rush to approve any plan or nature will be the loser,' she said.

The Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau said a cross-department team was set up to study development proposals, including the Sha Lo Tung plan.

'The Planning Department and the Lands Department are involved, they have given their opinion and the team will examine the project. As the project involves rezoning, it must be approved by the Town Planning Board. As it also involves land policy, it also needs to get Executive Council approval,' its spokeswoman said.

How green is this valley

1979: Sha Lo Tung Development Company starts buying land in area

October 1991: Government approves plan to build golf course, 66 luxury homes, 200 flats and 160 village houses

April 1992: Agriculture and Fisheries Department concedes in court it was technically wrong to approve plan

October 1992: Company scales back plan and sets aside some private land for public use July 1994: Company drops golf course and suggests building 70 detached homes, 100 flats and 160 village homes

May 1995: Villagers who backed development bulldoze nearly six hectares of land, destroying trees, vegetation and top soil

January 1997: Town Planning Board decides northeast part of Sha Lo Tung should become conservation zone and site of special scientific interest

January 2001: Court of First Instance blocks company?s judicial review challenging conservation order

June 2005: Company submits public-private-partnership idea to government, proposing to turn part of Sha Lo Tung into urn niches

2006: Row between Housing, Planning and Lands Bureau and Environment, Transport and Works Bureau over company?s proposal. Latter supports plan