Planners start crackdown on rural cheats
Planning chiefs have announced two measures to plug a loophole in the town planning system that has long been criticised for rewarding a 'destroy first, build later' approach by rural landowners.
The Town Planning Board said yesterday the measures were in response to incidents in recent years in which landowners or occupants in the New Territories illegally filled and cleared their land of vegetation before making a development application to the board.
'[They did so] in the hope that the board would give sympathetic consideration to the application as there would be nothing to protect and conserve on the application site,' the board said. 'The board has discussed the issue and decided to... deter these activities.'
From today, an application for rezoning or development of a site involved in activities such as illegal land and pond filling will be deferred by the board until a full investigation is completed.
In the past, there have been cases in which the board approved erection of village houses on former farmland that had been subjected to illegal dumping.
In 2009, owners of land in Ho Sheung Heung, Sheung Shui, sought to legalise their dumping activities after unloading large amounts of construction waste on farmland.
Their application was approved and only the drivers and contractors responsible for transporting the waste were prosecuted.
In the 1990s, a piece of wetland in Sham Chung was turned into a golf course. No one has yet been found responsible for the damage but a developer has a plan to build a spa resort on the site.
In another change, if an enforcement notice is issued to the landowner requiring him to restore the environment, and the owner makes a development application at the same time, the board will take the original condition as the baseline.
This means the owner cannot argue that the land is already degraded and therefore development should be justified. 'The board is determined to conserve the rural and natural environment and will not tolerate any deliberate action to destroy the... environment,' the board said.
The Planning Department will also step up prosecutions against unauthorised development.
However, a previous suggestion by green groups that a list of sites with a long history of unauthorised development be compiled to set a higher threshold for development applications was not mentioned yesterday.
Peter Li Siu-man, campaign manager of the Conservancy Association, welcomed the measures but said they would not address problems associated with those sites that were not covered by a so-called 'development permission area plan' before being given a formal zoning.
Planning officers have no power to take enforcement actions on those sites. Li said the law should also be changed to impose stiffer penalties for unauthorised development.