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Developers may benefit if green-belt areas in Hong Kong are opened up
Property giants have been snapping up green-belt land for years, but their development plans have been blocked for environmental reasons
The opening up of a debate about housing development in country parks is being watched with interest by the city's developers, not least because it increases the chances they will be able to dust off schemes in green-belt areas.
Some of the city's biggest developers - including New World Development, Sun Hung Kai Properties, Henderson Land and Wheelock Properties - have been actively snapping up green-belt land and conservation areas in the New Territories for years.
But their attempts to develop land zoned as green belt - areas on the fringes of urban communities designated by the government to prevent cities and towns from encroaching on environmentally sensitive areas - have largely been thwarted by the Town Planning Board.
Experts in the industry say development minister Paul Chan Mo-po's suggestion earlier this month that the idea of building in country parks should be debated may offer new hope for the developers; after all, why build in country parks when less ecologically valuable green-belt land is available?
"It's difficult to get planning approval to build residential projects in green-belt areas," surveyor Albert So Chun-hin said. "It seems that nine out of 10 applications would be rejected. If the government wants to develop sites in country parks, they should consider residential development in green belt first."
A home for the elderly proposed by New World for Mui Tze Lam in Sha Tin is typical of the developments that may benefit from the idea. The site is surrounded by Ma On Shan country park. New World first applied in 2005 to build six buildings of between one and four storeys, offering 550 flats for elderly people. The plan was rejected in 2008 on the grounds that such a residential development would go against the green-belt designation there.
Green-belt land in Tai Po is also a popular target for developers.
Wheelock Properties applied in 2010 to build 325 flats on a low-rise site in Shuen Wan, Tai Po. It opted to put the plan on hold later that year when the issue of development in rural areas hit the headlines after tycoon Simon Lo Lin-shing was found to be building a personal retreat off Sai Wan beach in the picturesque Tai Long area in the eastern part of the Sai Kung peninsula.
Lo's controversial development infuriated environmental groups. Although it was not involved in the furore, Wheelock put its plans on ice.
For So, allowing encroachment of the green belt has a number of advantages over developing often remote and unsuitable park lands.
"Hong Kong's developed area is surrounded by green belt. Many green-belt sites are well-connected and close to the urban area, which is easier for development. But most of the country parks are in hilly areas. The government would have to invest heavily in infrastructure," he said.
Any relaxation of the rules may also give new hope to Sun Hung Kai Properties as it attempts to develop a site in Sham Chung, near Sai Kung West country park.
The developer applied to build a resort hotel, with 130 guest rooms in 60 one-to-three-storey buildings on a 14.73-hectare site, while at the same time conserving 29 per cent of the site. However, the Town Planning Board rejected the scheme as the developer was unable to guarantee that the plan would not affect the environment and view.
Sha Lo Tung Development Company has been trying since the 1980s to develop a 31.48hectare site in Sha Lo Tung near Pat Sin Leng country park. Most recently, in 2011, the company proposed allocating almost 30 hectares of the site for conservation use in return for being allowed to build a columbarium on the remaining land.
But So says challenges remain for such developments even if green-belt rules are relaxed.
"It is still difficult for the developers to develop in those areas as part of the sites are conservation areas, while the development could destroy the living environment of butterfly and dragonfly species," he said.