The top town planner is opening the way for village house construction in an ecologically sensitive area as a 'political decision' to please powerful villagers, green groups say.
The two-kilometre-long Lin Ma Hang stream runs beside a village of the same name in the eastern end of the closed border area, which is due to reopen soon. The biologically rich stream was designated a site of special scientific interest in 2007.
The Town Planning Board planned to create a 20-metre-wide buffer area on both sides of the stream and to zone it as a conservation area.
But that angered the few villagers who still live there, as well as many former residents who said they planned to return when the border zone reopened. Conservation zoning would make it impossible for them to exercise their right to build homes under the small-house policy.
That plan was abruptly shelved when the Town Planning Board met on September 8 to discuss the proposal, which was still being drafted. Chairman Thomas Chow Tat-ming announced that the proposed zoning was being changed from conservation to green belt, to make it easier for villagers to exercise their right to build houses. Chow is also the permanent secretary for development.
The board endorsed the change for the village, which had 80 residents when officials made a count in 2006. Village leaders say up to 900 men will become eligible to build small houses in 10 years, and an additional 100 old village houses must be rebuilt.
The green groups say they didn't see the minutes of the September meeting until mid-November. They want Chow and the board to explain the rationale for the zoning change, and how the decision was made.
A joint statement by Green Power, WWF Hong Kong, Designing Hong Kong, Hong Kong Bird Watching Society and Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Garden said the change would hamper future conservation efforts.
'The case will set a bad precedent and affect a riparian zone of high ecological value - making it a land reserve for later development, which will be disastrous to the ecology of the natural stream system,' they said.
'This is clearly a political decision without any scientific basis,' said Karen Woo Lai-yan of Green Power. She said it was not hard to get approval for building plans - including small houses - in green belt zones.
Woo questioned whether conservation officials - who had favoured more restrictive zoning - genuinely supported the down-zoning.
But a spokeswoman for the board said the zoning change was a collective decision by its members. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department had confirmed that the buffer area had low ecological value and was already partially developed, she said.
'The green-belt zoning will enable the board to regulate development within the buffer area, and maintain a proper balance between conservation and the community's need for development. The green belt zoning will also provide flexibility for suitable small-house development subject to scrutiny under the planning permission system,' she said.
Public access to Lin Ma Hang has been restricted since the 1950s, but it will soon be opened because the government no longer needs such a large restricted area along the border.
The pending opening has triggered a tug of war over the past few months between villagers and environmentalists on the future land use of the area, parts of which are privately owned. Villagers have complained for months against the plans to zone more than 80 per cent of the 329-hectare Lin Ma Hang as green belts and conservation areas, saying that would breach their property rights. Four per cent of the site was originally reserved for development.
But even the concession made on September 8 reportedly failed to satisfy the villagers, who want all agricultural areas rezoned for development, and the stream's designation as a site of special scientific interest dropped.
Chong Dee-hwa, president of the Ichthyological Society of Hong Kong, said the stream, which is home to at least 20 fish species, was a 'scientific treasure' yet to be fully explored. 'It is really a pity to see that we are going to trash [an ecosystem] before we really understand it,' he said. At least three species of rare freshwater fish might be endemic to the stream, which flows into the Shenzhen River. One of them, an unnamed goldfish species, might be new to science, said Chong, who planned to conduct more DNA tests on the fish to ascertain its status. The stream might have other unique species, he said, but the closed border has prevented a full scientific investigation.
Alan Leung Sze-lun, of the WWF, said the buffer area of the stream was 'an essential and integral part' of the stream's ecosystem.