Balanced solution on park enclaves

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 October, 2011, 12:00am

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When the country park system was set up in the 1970s to preserve nature for recreation and conserve water catchments, the government carved out more than 70 enclaves of private land under ancestral ownership. It zoned many for farming or conservation. The threat of undesirable development of these areas, out of character with the environment, seemed remote then. There seemed no need for steps to prevent it.

The administration's hand was forced by a public outcry last year over excavation works for a businessman's private retreat in the coastal enclave of Tai Long Sai Wan in Sai Kung East Country Park. The Planning Department stepped in with an interim zoning that froze most development for three years, pending a new land-use plan.

It has taken the same approach to protect other enclaves that have been damaged by development and are seen as being at risk; 40 such sites are now under permanent or temporary protection. But this is an interim measure, rather than a permanent solution that keeps both environmentalists and villagers happy. The Country and Marine Parks Board has backed proposals for the enclaves to be integrated with the parks if they meet conservation values. Last week, the board decided the entire 17-hectare Tai Long Sai Wan site should be incorporated into Sai Kung East Country Park. Officials are to redraft the country park map and organise a public consultation.

If this approach is adopted widely, it will give protection where there is at present little or none. It is therefore to be welcomed. But reaction to the Tai Long Sai Wan proposal shows it will not be smooth sailing. Environmentalists say it would give the site more resources and better management than a passive land-use zoning. But villagers and rural leaders are worried about restrictions on the right to build small houses on ancestral land if development is forbidden. How small-house applications are to be processed is just one outstanding issue to be clarified. Another is how the livelihood of the area is to be improved under the country park system, which is managed by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department.

The Town Planning Board, which has the final say on development zoning, will have to balance public and private interests, and ensure land use is consistent with conservation. This could involve buying it at reasonable prices and offering alternative sites. As a last resort, if the rules are abused the government should resume ownership.

Securing local livelihoods will be important to easing the worries of villagers. In the case of scenic coastal enclaves such as Tai Long Sai Wan, the potential for eco-tourism is worth considering.