Conservationists have urged the government to clarify whether nature preservation is a legitimate cause for taking land from private owners.
The call comes in response to the Development Bureau's plan to take back about 32 hectares of land in Long Valley, near Sheung Shui in the New Territories - a well-known wetland and bird haven - to create a nature park.
Conservancy Association chief executive Ken So Kwok-yin said that while the group was generally positive about the land's resumption, the government should make sure that nature conservation was a "cause of public purpose" for which such action was warranted.
Some of the plots of land involved - many of which are being farmed - are in the hands of local rural clans. Others are held by investors and developers, including a subsidiary of property giant Cheung Kong.
The bureau says the Land Resumption Ordinance will be used to take back the land for a park next to a planned new town in Kwu Tung. So noted that this law was mainly used to resume land for purposes such as roads and railways. While the ordinance did not state explicitly that nature conservation was a public purpose, it said the Chief Executive in Council could justify what constituted a public purpose.
"We are concerned [about whether conservation] meets the ordinance's requirement as an overriding need," So said.
He said there might have been no precedent for such a move, hence making it vital for officials to ensure that the resumption was properly justified.
"Perhaps we can view it from the development context in the northeastern New Territories, and argue that this is crucial for the greening of the whole region," he said.
The Long Valley, which is the largest man-made freshwater wetland remaining in the city, is a haven for more than 200 bird species, half of those recorded in Hong Kong.
The wetland made headlines in 2000 when it was proposed that the Kowloon-Canton Railway Corporation's Lok Ma Chau spur line cut across it. The project was vetoed by the environmental watchdog and the company was eventually forced to build the railway underground.
The Long Valley was listed eighth in a dozen priority ecological sites under the new nature conservation policy promulgated by the government in 2004.
At the time, the government resisted taking back private land for conservation because the move might have cost it billions of dollars.
Alan Leung Sze-lun, conservation manager of WWF Hong Kong, said the buyout option, as proposed for the Long Valley land, was the best approach in dealing with conservation on private land with fragmented ownership.
"We have no doubt that conservation is a public purpose," Leung said. But he wondered whether there might be other implications that officials should seriously consider, such as whether the Long Valley buyout would become a new policy that could be applied to other ecological sites.
One possible site, he said, was the Tung Chung river estuary, adjacent to a proposed new town extension. "The government should clarify if there are any changes to the conservation policy," he said.
Asked to comment on the issue, the bureau did not answer the question whether conservation was a public purpose. It would say only that the nature park would be used to mitigate wetland loss in the new town development.
It said the park would be managed by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, and wet farming would be allowed based on "prescribed guidelines and requirements".
It said the department would prepare a detailed management plan, but gave no timetable.