Get tough on illegal urn niches, greens say
The government must not let private columbarium operators get away with breaking zoning or land lease rules under its new licensing scheme, green groups and residents say.
Speaking at a legislature panel meeting yesterday, they repeated long-standing complaints about private operators damaging the environment, causing fire hazards, disrupting neighbourhoods with noise and crowding, and other problems.
A series of public consultations on the issue will finish at the end of this month, leading to a new licensing scheme for the sector.
Cindy Choi Mo-ching, of the Association for Geoconservation, told the panel meeting that the natural habitats of Po Toi Island and Ma Shi Chau had been damaged by the construction of illegal columbariums.
'An area as big as several football fields has been occupied at Po Toi Island. Will the government spare the violators? It shouldn't,' she said.
Chau Chun-kan, a villager in San Wai Tsuen, Yuen Long, said that while the construction of a private columbarium in his village has been halted, about one-third of the nearby trees had been cut down. 'If people are allowed to damage the environment and then apply for a licence [to operate legally], it runs against Hong Kong's rule of law,' he said.
In the consultation document, the government says the licensing scheme has to be reasonable and proportional to the problems posed by existing private columbariums. They may not meet all government requirements, but they should be approached in a 'pragmatic way' since they form a historical legacy, it says.
Kwai Tsing district councillor Leung Chi-shing said columbariums that pose environmental and other problems - apart from clear fire and public safety hazards - should not be licensed under the new scheme.
Others who spoke - especially residents of Hung Hom, a known black spot for illegal columbariums - were unhappy about a proposed exemption for undertakers who provide temporary storage of remains. Residents don't want such facilities in their neighbourhoods because they disturb people with their noise, smoke and traffic, they said.
Lawmakers were also concerned about a proposed 18-month grace period - for existing columbariums after the licensing scheme comes into effect - to allow them to sort out breaches of land and planning rules. The department aims to table a bill in the next legislative year, but the new law will not come into force until 2014 or 2015. Another lengthy grace period after that is not acceptable, they said.
Kitty Choi Kit-ku, deputy secretary for Food and Health, said she will consider shortening it. The government is inclined to exempt long-standing private operators, she said.
The number of complaints - involving 97 cases - in the three years to February of possible land lease breaches by columbariums