Grounds for dissent
When 12-year-old Kam Ho-wah was killed when hit by a truck in an upmarket Yuen Long estate last month, the tragedy ignited a storm of protest from residents. Shock and grief quickly turned to anger, and emotions ran high as residents confronted truck drivers who continued to use the boulevard for access to nearby container storage sites, even though an alternative route was opened immediately after the boy's death.
But behind the outpouring of rage, which resulted in a roadblock last week by Fairview Park residents and a tense standoff with villagers of nearby Tai Sang Wai, is a long-running row over the route and the laws governing land use in the New Territories.
The row between the estate and nearby container storage sites accessed by trucks has dragged on for years. In 2005, it prompted Fairview Park Property Management Limited to take the government to court. The case is due to be heard in October.
Fairview residents said heavy trucks could use a newly completed public road - Kam Pok Road which links to Castle Peak Road - instead of the private boulevard.
Albert Lam Kwok-fai, general manager of the Fairview Park property management company, estimated there were about 30 container yards near private estates in the area. He said the biggest problem was public safety and the private road was not built to accommodate frequent use by heavy trucks. Mr Lam said noise was another issue.
Emily Lo, who has lived in Fairview Park since 1997, said her family and neighbours suffered a lot from the nearby container yards, one of which was less than five metres from her home. It sometimes operated late at night and into the early hours of the morning. After years of discussion, the storage yard's owner agreed in 2003 to try not to operate at night, and planted trees to improve the environment.
'The storage still operates at midnight, from time to time,' she said. 'It is disturbing. But we understand they are a business and there are peak seasons and we also understand the storage business has hired many people; and these people's livelihood depends on the storage. We can't push it too much.'
Storage yards are common in the northeast New Territories, offering a base from which truck drivers take containers across the border to Shenzhen via the Lok Ma Chau checkpoint. Fairview Park was completed in 1979, becoming the first large-scale single- or double-storey residential project in Hong Kong. But many storage sites in the neighbourhood and in other parts of the New Territories were there first, meaning container yards often operated alongside residential estates, villages and environmentally sensitive areas.
'Many of us thought they were illegal,' Ms Lo said. 'We found out they were legal and that they existed before the estate when we negotiated with them on how to improve our living environment.'
The controversy is mired in the New Territories' complex town-planning history. The rural area of the New Territories did not have zoning control until 1991. Before the implementation of the Town Planning (Amendment) Ordinance in 1991, the government could only control land use in the rural area through land leases.
In the early 1900s, the colonial government recruited surveyors from India to survey all occupied parts of the New Territories and to record the name of the occupiers and the purpose for which their land was being used. Later, the New Territories was divided into 477 districts and each was governed by a Block Crown Lease, which marked the land for agricultural use.
With the city's rapid economic development and growing importance as a logistics centre during the past century, demand for storage sites surged. As farming became increasingly unprofitable, indigenous people began renting their agricultural land to container storage businesses.
The government realised in the early 1980s that control over land uses in the New Territories was inadequate and tried to ratify the situation, but failed.
One landmark case involved Melhado Investment, which rented its agricultural land for metal girder storage. The government sued the company on the basis that the land had originally been assigned to the property user for agricultural purposes.
But the Court of Appeal ruled in 1983 that Melhado had the right to continue using the land as long as no structure was built at the site.
As the court verdict legitimised the push by landlords to turn their farm lands into storage, there was a proliferation of open storage sites in the northwestern part of the New Territories.
It was only in 1991 that the government gradually imposed zoning controls in the rural areas that specified which land was for agricultural use, open storage, conservation, green belt and residential development.
The Town Planning (Amendment) Ordinance's introduction in 1991, however, also specified that it would tolerate land use that existed before the law's implementation. The ordinance meant container storage sites that existed before the introduction of the control had their lawful status confirmed.
Under the 'existing use' clause, the government cannot regulate the storage sites' operations, such as imposing restrictions on operation hours and landscape improvements.
'It was a political decision,' said an industry source, who did not want to be named. 'The government did not want to upset people with vested interests. Instead of ratifying the situation through planning controls, the government reaffirmed the status of the container storages.'
The 1991 amendment introduced 'open storage' use to the rural area, and the sites are largely concentrated in San Tin, Ngau Tam Mei and Ping Shan. Although the storage companies can set up their businesses in those lands zoned as open storage, they have to comply with certain standards the government sets, such as restrictions on operating hours, noise control, proper drainage and landscaping design.
The government also introduced the concept of 'temporary uses'. The regulations mean that every outline zoning plan of the New Territories carries two clauses. Except in certain areas, including those zoned 'site of special scientific interest' or 'conservation area', temporary use or the development of any land or building is allowed for up to two months. The regulation means people do not have to seek Town Planning Board approval for temporary use of less than two months, and approval is needed only if the temporary use lasts longer than two months.
Hong Kong Institute of Planners vice-president Pong Yuen-yee said temporary use posed no major problem because the board could regulate planning to ensure the neighbourhood and the environment would not suffer.
'Most container storage sites in the New Territories are legal and there are regulations on how they operate,' she said. 'The biggest problem is how to handle those that existed before the outline zoning plan.'
Ms Pong said what had happened in Fairview Park highlighted the problems caused by container storage yards that had existed since the 1980s. 'The problem has existed for a long time, but the government thinks there is no urgency in dealing with it. So the administration hardly put resources in this area to resolve the problems.'
Ms Pong hoped the government would find accessible places that were suitable for container storage sites and build the necessary infrastructure such as roads for heavy vehicles and drainage. Such a move would encourage those businesses to move from their existing sites.
Albert Chan Wai-yip, a directly elected legislator who represents New Territories West, agreed with Ms Pong's suggestion. He said the planning mess could be resolved if the government had the political will.
'People like living in the New Territories where space is plenty and air is fresh. All the government needs to do is rezone the agricultural lands so they will have development values. The administration can carry out a comprehensive study to identify which piece of land now occupied by container storage can become a low density residential site without sacrificing the environment. It will facilitate property developers to buy lands in the New Territories.'
He said that affected landlords would welcome the move because it would increase the value of their land. The government, on the other hand, would benefit from land premiums from developers if those areas were turned into residential estates.
Fairview park resident Ms Lo also believed the container storage sites near her home would gradually be phased out and replaced with low-density residential developments.