Niche site at geopark may be seized
An illegal private columbarium on a geologically important island in Tolo Harbour could be repossessed by the government for defying a Lands Department call to cease operations.
The operator has ignored the February 28 deadline to rectify a breach of land use three months after its application to regularise the business was rejected by the department.
The government is now entitled to 're-enter' the land as it did in the cases of two other illegal columbariums in Tei Tong Tsai and San Wai Tsuen.
Hundreds of underground niches have been developed at the privately owned site on the southern tip of Ma Shi Chau, an island administered by Tai Po district, and designated as a global geopark.
About 30 niches have been occupied, up from just below 10 in late 2010, according to a concern group on illegal columbariums.
Some of the niches are marked by tombstones showing the deceased died in 2011, an indication the operator was still selling niches after the columbarium was listed as illegal by the Development Bureau in late 2010 because of the land lease breach.
Known as Yuen Fuk Yuen, the columbarium was established in 2008, amid a shortage of niches at public facilities. Tai Po district councillor Lo Sam-shing once held shares in the Union Lucky company that bought the site in 2008 but has since transferred his stake.
'What seems right for the government to do now is to take back the land as the operator is apparently taking advantage of lax enforcement to make some quick money,' said Eddie Tse Sai-kit, convenor of a concern group that focuses on illegal columbariums.
Tse said the operator knew there was a time gap before the government could enforce a proposed licensing system to regulate private columbariums.
'No matter what happens to them in the end, they can always walk away with a fortune and leave the urns for the government to handle,' Tse said. Niches at the site were being sold for at least HK$10,000 each.
The government is still consulting the public about the licensing system. The exercise will last until the end of this month, but it could take up to five years for the system to start operating, officials have said.
Apart from Ma Shi Chau, Tse said hundreds of similar underground urn spaces have been built on a south-facing area with a total size of 100,000 square feet on the remote Po Toi Island, southeast of Hong Kong Island. About 10 to 15 per cent of the site is on government land.
The niches are believed to have been built in the last three months, but the scale of work has shocked environmentalists who found vegetation removed and some natural rocks damaged.
'It looks like a sea of niches lining the slope in the hill,' said Dr Young Ng Chun-yeong, from the Association for Geoconservation.