Environment

Top girls' school hit with heavy fine for tree pruning

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 May, 2011, 12:00am

A celebrated girls' school in Pok Fu Lam has been hit with a HK$200,000 fine for pruning back a protected tree last year without permission, after school leaders feared students could be hit by falling branches and nuts.

The hefty fine, imposed this month by the government on St Stephen's Girls' College on Bonham Road for breaching its tenancy agreement, came to light yesterday after Lands Department officials responded to a concern group's complaint about the candlenut tree.

According to its letter to the Lung Fu Shan Environmental Concern Group, the department said the candlenut tree had been 'seriously damaged'' by the pruning. St Stephen's Girls' College did not responds to calls from the South China Morning Post yesterday.

The department said no prior submission had been made for the pruning work, violating a condition in the school's tenancy agreement.

One district councillor described the punishment as over the top, but tree specialists said the fine was reasonable.

A local arborist who saw the work on the tree said the pruning - which removed a large part of the candlenut's crown - was unprofessional. He said he was told by the workers who did the pruning that the school thought the tree was dangerous to students.

'They just randomly cut the tree without any plan, and the work affected other trees as well,' the arborist said. He said the tree was not entirely healthy: 'There were a few holes in its trunk, but there are simpler remedies. You can inject chemicals in the tree to stop the production of nuts instead of removing the whole crown.'

The arborist said the leading worker on the tree cutting team was once a certified tree worker who worked for the government.

Officials told the concern group that the school had been fined HK$200,000 this month. A spokeswoman for the group, Melanie Moore, welcomed the news, saying it would deter bad practices elsewhere.

However, Central and Western district council vice-chairman Stephen Chan Chit-kwai said the pruning was done out of concern for students' safety. He contacted the school after receiving the complaint and was told that branches had fallen off the tree.

'The penalty sounds too heavy,' Chan said. 'The school didn't do it without a good reason. They just hired some unprofessional workers.' Jim Chi-yung, a tree scientist at the University of Hong Kong, said candlenut trees are widely planted in the city for their rapid growth and fast-greening effect.

Jim said the size of the fine was reasonable for a common, mature tree, but he urged the Lands Department to disclose the criteria for different fines and explain why there were no fines in some tree pruning cases.

Ken So Kwok-yin, chief executive of the Conservancy Association, said the punishment should be expanded to include all public, government-funded projects, not just sites with tree preservation conditions in leases. The Lands Department did not reply to the Post's enquiries yesterday.

This is the second such penalty imposed in the past year in Hong Kong. The Canossa Hospital was fined HK$239,100 in August for excessive trimming of a Chinese banyan.

The school is the alma mater of such luminaries as former Legislative Council president Rita Fan Hsu Lai-tai and Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, former top official turned lawmaker.

Costly cuts

Location: St Stephen's Girls' College, Pok Fu Lam

Tree: Candlenut

Date of fine: May 2011

Fine HK$200,000 for removing the tree crown

Location: Canossa Hospital, Mid-Levels

Tree: Chinese Banyan

Date of fine: August 2010

Fine HK$200,000

Administrative fee HK$39,100 for excessive pruning