A Mid-Levels landlord has been accused of authorising a tree to be so badly pruned as to endanger it, and breaching the protection guidelines.
But it appears that both the landlord, offshore company Brilliant Gold Development, and the contractor it hired to prune the tree will escape penalties.
That is because of a legal loophole - the old lease for the site does not contain a tree preservation clause.
The tree in question is a Chinese banyan growing on a stone wall on the boundary of 1A Robinson Road.
Local resident Melanie Moore complained to the Lands Department and Tree Management Office when she noticed last weekend that half of the tree's crown had been hacked away.
Moore wants the two agencies to penalise those responsible. "From my inspections, this tree was previously healthy, in good form and firmly attached to the retaining wall in a secure and safe manner," Moore wrote.
Brilliant Gold Development, which was set up in the British Virgin Islands and owns the entire residential block at 1A Robinson Road, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Land search and company results show that two of the firm's three directors are David Cheng Kai-ho and Cheng Tien-shun, both formerly directors of Magnificent Estates.
The operator of Evergreen Planting, which was hired to carry out the pruning work, admitted no certified arborist was involved in the work.
"The owner was afraid the tree was too big and would collapse and hurt pedestrians," the operator, who declined to be named, said.
"The owner's representative watched us prune the tree. They didn't ask for an arborist. They just said the branches were too long and they wanted us to trim the tree. We just went ahead with it, based on our experience."
This "trimming" has left the tree bereft of its middle branches, with just stumps remaining.
There is no legislation to protect tree growth and guide maintenance of trees on private land. The government says there is no need for such a law because land leases drafted since 1970 contain a "tree preservation clause".
But the lease for the Robinson Road site, drafted in 1860 and revised in 1960, does not contain this clause. Such 999-year leases are a legacy of the early colonial administration and are commonplace on Hong Kong Island.
Professor Jim Chi-yung, a tree specialist from the University of Hong Kong who sits on the government's tree expert panel, said the case was a reminder of the city's persistent troubles with tree care.
"It is a legal loophole that many land leases do not contain the clause for tree preservation," Jim said. "There have been repeated cases such as this one, but there is no improvement. The tree office has uploaded guidelines to its website but no one follows them. With no law the office is just a paper tiger that cannot enforce its rules."
The tree's branches were wounded by the pruning, he said, and there was a high chance it would get infected. "It might in the end rot and fall," he said.
Most of the lower branches had been removed, he said, describing it as one of the "cardinal sins" of tree pruning.
The Lands Department's district office for Hong Kong South and West said no action could be taken because there was no tree preservation clause in the lease.