The Country Parks Ordinance does not cover private sites that are inside country parks, the government said yesterday.
And excavation work at these sites does not contravene the law as it can be seen as an agricultural activity.
Both the Lands Department and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said the government can stop owners from building houses on private sites in country parks but they can't stop preparation work, including clearing trees and excavation.
The departments were responding to inquiries by the Post on whether excavation work at a private site in Sam Tam Lo, that led to pollution of scenic Bride's Pool in Plover Cove Country park last week, was illegal.
The site's owner, Albert Leung Sai-on, said he was planning to build a HK$200 million park within a park, including the 'reconstruction' of 11 old village houses.
A spokeswoman for the AFCD said the Country Parks Ordinance does not apply to private sites in country parks as the government has to respect private property. 'Owners can do what they want as long as the activities do not violate land lease conditions,' she said.
Workers at the site were prosecuted for felling 13 trees in April because the trees were on government land, she said.
The Lands Department said the site is an agricultural lot governed by a block government lease which does not allow construction of houses. However, the lease conditions do not ban excavation and clearing work compatible with agricultural use.
'I have to say this is a loophole in the law [Country Parks Ordinance],' Country and Marine Parks Board chairwoman Professor Nora Tam Fung-yee said. 'But it was set up in the 1970s and it respects the property rights of private land owners.'
Private sites make up about 2 per cent of the country park areas, covering nearly 480 hectares.
Tam said the board has urged the government to adopt a more proactive approach to protect country parks: 'The Lands Department is the final gatekeeper to stop developments on these private sites.'
She said the government should review the ordinance and increase penalties for offences. The maximum penalty for illegal work on government land in country parks is just a HK$2,000 fine and three months' jail.
'This is ridiculous. The government should amend the law to extend protection [of country parks] to private sites,' Peter Li Siu-man, the campaign manager of the Conservancy Association, said. 'The government can stop a development proposal but the damage may have already been done.'
Li said the planned development would affect the environment.
Leung said the original houses on the site were dilapidated. 'I only want to reconstruct them.'