Hoi Ha plan fails test for environmental protection

Wilson Lau says the plan to develop in an ecologically fragile part of Sai Kung shows the need for a more rigorous assessment process

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 October, 2013, 7:09pm
UPDATED : Friday, 18 October, 2013, 2:08am

Upwards of 200 people walked from Tai Tan to Hoi Ha Wan last Saturday to expose the likely impact of development in this fragile pocket, located inside Sai Kung West Country Park but not part of the country park.

They marched in opposition to the proposed zoning plan for Hoi Ha, which will significantly enlarge the developable area, despite the close proximity and probable adverse effect on the surrounding, relatively pristine, environment.

As a country park enclave, the zoning in Hoi Ha came under review after the Tai Long Sai Wan controversy in 2010 - in which a private owner's attempt to build on the land raised a public outcry - compelled the government to evaluate the status of the 77 enclaves throughout Hong Kong.

When the criteria for designating country parks was revised the following year, it was stated that enclaves could be included in country parks or come under appropriate statutory zoning, to be determined by its conservation value. Other aspects, such as its geographical proximity, existing population size and development pressures, would also be considered.

With these changes in mind, it seems inconceivable that a zoning plan could be approved to intensify development pressure in Hoi Ha, as opposed to enhancing conservation in the area. After all, it is a place considered unique in ecological terms and formally recognised with a marine park, and country park surrounding three sides of the village.

To increase the developable area in such places of high ecological value calls into question the kind of ecological assessments adopted by the Town Planning Board.

Zealous plans to encroach into country park areas should not, by now, come as a surprise. The recent suggestion by the development secretary to meet Hong Kong's projected housing targets by developing country park land may have excited developers, but it also sparked outrage among many others.

Such views make people increasingly suspicious that the government might be facilitating the destruction of protected areas for conservation.

Planning procedures should defend places of high ecological value from wanton destruction and damage. To determine ecological value, a place's uniqueness, such as whether it holds rare species, is important, as is its ability to cope with users at a site without compromising the health of the ecosystem.

This means coming up with an acceptable level of impact and preventing this from been exceeded. It can start with questions about how people are likely to use a site now and in the future, how many people might use it for this purpose, and how the usage might change throughout the year.

These are essential considerations, but not necessarily easy to agree on. To assist in this task, we have formulated a process for the systematic evaluation of sites, in an attempt to integrate conservation value in planning decisions. The 2012 publication, "Protecting Sites of Ecological Value", includes a checklist which, when followed, would help decision-makers such as the Town Planning Board establish a site's ecological value.

Such assessments must be undertaken as a necessary precursor for verifying a site's development potential.

Wilson Lau is research and project officer at Civic Exchange