Shek O residents in final court battle to save homes
DISGRUNTLED Shek O residents return to court tomorrow, fighting for their homes in a last-gasp battle with bureaucracy and bulldozers.
Daniel Yip Wai-lum is down to his last few legal bullets in a five-year feud with the Building Authority. He has spent $500,000 in legal fees to try to save the $2 million homestead he built in 1989 at the seaside village where his ancestors lived for generations before the British arrived.
Mr Yip has run afoul of local law by constructing a modern abode in Shek O without the necessary approval of the authority.
On Wednesday the authority posted notices of its intention to close and demolish the structure within days.
However, in an about-turn it has now decided to await the outcome of a lawsuit by tenant Gina Levy.
Ms Levy, who would be made homeless along with six other tenants by the closure, is due in Wan Chai Court tomorrow. She alleges that the closure would deprive tenants, including a single mother, of proper six-month notice in what amounts to a Building Authority eviction.
What won't be argued in court, according to lawyers and all participants, is the logic involved in destroying what they claim is one of the most structurally-sound buildings in Shek O.
''It's crazy to allow face to take precedent over common sense,'' admits one of the many attorneys in the drawn-out battle. ''This is a good, solid building. It's stupid to tear it down.'' Mr Yip admits he made mistakes when he first decided to build a pair of three-storey adjoining flats on property he and a cousin bought in 1988. He says he failed to soothe the concerns of a neighbour, who eventually complained to the authority.
He realises he failed to properly appeal against the initial closure order in early 1991.
''They say this building is unsafe,'' said Mr Yip, who works as a structural engineer. ''But I've paid for an independent structural engineer. They just refuse to be reasonable.'' Not so, counters the Building Authority, which maintains it has followed the law to the letter with Mr Yip, and Business Rights Limited, the legal owner of the property in question.
''That building is illegal because he never got approval,'' said Tony Au-yeung, a spokesman for the authority. ''The case is very simple. Everyone who builds a house has to submit a plan. No plan was submitted before he started building.'' Mr Yip says he knows of only one other structure that has been sited, and that would be the home behind his, which was hit by a closure order this year.
''They wanted to build a case, to show they aren't unfairly enforcing only me,'' Mr Yip said. ''But, by their standards, all of Shek O is illegal.'' Ms Levy has filed a civil suit against the authority and plans to represent herself in court tomorrow. While she maintains that, as a tenant, she is entitled to a six-month notice of eviction, she is actually asking the court to toss out the closure notice and take a fresh look at the issue.
In years of legal battles, Mr Yip has been forced to challenge the process rather than questions of code compliance, since he failed to appeal against the first authority notice within the mandated two-week period.
''This situation has got out of hand,'' said Ms Levy. ''If the building is dangerous, fine, I can understand why they should close it. But this building isn't dangerous at all.'' Mr Yip hopes to win some breathing space by his tenant's action, time that will allow him to take his case to London. He plans to argue that his basic rights have been violated, and that Shek O has been zoned improperly. Mr Yip is also chairman of the Shek O Indigenous Villagers' Association.
He recently failed in an attempt to have his case heard by the Privy Council in Britain. He plans to petition London directly for clemency.
And his tenants are equally determined to continue the fight. Last week, they presented petitions with 400 signatures, to Governor Chris Patten, urging him to save their homes.