It's just for a farm, says bemused businessman
In his gleaming Rolls-Royce, businessman Alex Van Damme does not look like your normal common or garden farmer.
But he found himself ploughing a lone furrow yesterday as a phalanx of government officials turned up to watch as he planned to clear two newly-acquired plots of land he owns in Clearwater Bay of vegetation.
Neighbourly curiosity and a public increasingly twitchy at environmental degradation sent officials scurrying to find out what the uncle of movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme - aka 'the Muscles from Brussels' - had in mind for the plots, which are in a conservation area.
Van Damme explained that he wants to transform the plots into a private hydroponic farm for his son, who is due to return from London and has a passion for agriculture. The food they produce will supply his family, friends and perhaps even his neighbours who have doubts about his plan.
Van Damme's plans for the land peaked the interest of residents in luxury-villa-lined Hang Hau Wing Lung Road, worried about the possibility of a property development.
Their interest was sparked after Dorshare, of which Van Damme is a director, paid HK$1.5 million in October for the two plots with a combined size of more than 1,000 square metres at the bottom of a valley near the road.
The purchase led to suspicions among locals who claimed to have seen dump trucks and workers visiting the two plots, which have a history of failed property development.
They were concerned that removal of vegetation on the site would destroy the natural habitat of the conservation area, pollute nearby streams and eventually pave the way for development.
Their fears were fuelled by the fact that Van Damme's company also owns two houses right above the valley which it bought for HK$12 million in 2007.
But Van Damme, who is involved in the garment and property businesses, denied the land purchase was for residential development, and guaranteed that the sites would be nothing more than farmland.
'I have no intention to build anything and we'll just do farming here,' he said, adding that the scale would not be commercial, and they would carefully move in supplies and move out produce.
Asked why he was so interested in growing vegetables, Van Damme said he did it not just because he loved nature but also that his son had a passion for it, particularly organic farming.
'My younger son is studying in London and he is quite interested in agriculture and he has a passion for it and organic food. He is coming back to Hong Kong in December and so I bought this land for him. It is his dream and he is getting help from a consultant from Singapore specialising in hydroponic agriculture,' he said.
While he was aware of the site being zoned as a conservation area when he bought the two plots, Van Damme said he understood that agriculture was a permitted land use and he would avoid touching sensitive sites such as an adjacent stream.
'I respect their concerns and I know what is going on and how sensitive it is. But they can relax,' he said.
To kick-start the farming project, Van Damme had originally arranged a digger and workers to clear the vegetation on the sites yesterday. But the work was temporarily interrupted as about 10 officers from the Lands, Planning and Environmental Protection departments visited the site to investigate complaints about suspected environmental damage.
The lands officers reminded Van Damme not to cross and damage government land or he would be held responsible. They also advised him to delineate clearly the boundary of his private land before doing work.
Van Damme was also asked to switch to a smaller digger than the one he planned to use and to use a crane to lift it down the valley from the road, instead of going through government land.
An environment officer also urged him to pay attention to when a permit was required, as some minor works such as building a wooden toilet within the conservation area might need advance assessment and approval from officials.
The Planning and Lands departments last night said it found no unauthorised development on the site. But the Wing Lung Road Concern Group, comprising residents who have been following up on environmental damage in the neighbourhood, urged the district lands office to monitor the status of the two sites and the future use of the land.