Ho Sheung Heung, located in a rural part of Sheung Shui, has become the focus of another dispute over land use, even as it battles another illegal dumping case.
A vacant village school has been converted into a store selling food to visitors, and the new business has proved a popular stop on organised tours to the area. The problem is that the store was built without prior planning permission.
It is the fourth land-use dispute at the village since last July. None of the disputes have been fully settled. And the disputes have come amid a controversial land-rezoning proposal by the government last year to turn over the wider Ho Sheung Heung area for nature preservation and low-density housing development.
The store, which is about 100 square metres, occupies one of the three single-storey structures at the Ho Kai School compound. The school was built in the mid-1990s but was never occupied because of a lack of students.
Operated under the brand Yummy House, the outlet offers food products including soy sauce, priced at HK$22 and recommended by Hugo Leung Man-to, television-food-show host and critic.
While the school site is owned by a member of the dominant Hau clan, Hau Kam-yuen, the outlet is run by Yummy House International, which has two directors named Shea King-nam and Shea King-fung. They could not be contacted yesterday.
The company has four outlets in the city, but its website does not show the latest one at the village. A salesman at the outlet yesterday said all necessary approvals, such as for fire safety measures, were sought before the shop opened two weeks ago.
A spokeswoman for the Planning Department said that since the area the school was located on was zoned as for government, institutional and community use, shops established there would require prior planning permission. 'But we have not received any application so far,' she said yesterday, adding that officials were following up the case now.
The Lands Department said the private land was held under an old land lease without specific restrictions on land use.
A tour guide from a local travel agency, which organised a day trip for about 30 people from a Sha Tin elderly centre said the outlet was often visited by local tours.
'It has become a very popular tourist attraction among the elderly. It is a good chance for them to stop by and get some stuff for the Chinese New Year,' the guide said, denying the tour agent would receive any commission from bring tourists to the shop.
The HK$90 trip includes a visit to a local farm, a lunch in a restaurant, bean-curd-pudding tasting and shopping at the Yummy House outlet - which is the last leg of the trip.
Bowie Hau Chi-keung, the Ho Sheung Heung village head, said that while he knew nothing about the possible breach of planning rules, he blamed the media for targeting the village. 'What's wrong with turning the school into something else which is environmental friendly and clean?' Hau said. Why the does the media keep attacking us and breaking the rice bowl of dozens of people?'
Hau was also referring to the Long Yuen Wetlands Farm - a barbecue site and recreational park - which government departments are taking notice of. A few days ago, the Buildings Department asked the farm to demolish some illegal structures.
Hau also blamed the excessive media attention for forcing the temporary closure of a popular bean-curd-pudding- and soya-milk-production plant and eatery. The eatery - known for its HK$8 buffet - was in operation for years until late last year when food and planning officials learned of licensing concerns.
Earlier, some self-proclaimed 'bitter' landowners put up banners at several entrances into neighbouring Long Valley - a bird-haven - warning visitors that they might die if they went onto private farmland where animal traps have been installed against wild boars.
Hau Kam-lam, a North District Councillor, said the protests indicated the discontent among landowners who feared the proposed zoning might sacrifice their interests. 'The best way forward is for the government to resume all the sites deemed as ecological important areas a few years ago,' he said.
Last July, a large piece of farmland next to the school was land-filled with construction waste mixed with tombstone and coffin wastes from a public cemetery. All the wastes are still being deposited at the site, pending results of reviews filed by landowners to the Development Bureau on previous orders to remove the waste.