A Sai Kung resident accused the government of breaking a promise it made in the 1970s by incorporating private land in his village into a country park and trampling on the rights of indigenous villagers to build houses on the site, a court heard yesterday.
Thomas Lai, a resident of Sai Wan village for more than 60 years, urged the Court of First Instance to review the government's approval of a map on May 7 that included their 17-hectare enclave on the Tai Long Wan coast into the surrounding Sai Kung East Country Park.
The decision frustrated the "legitimate expectations" of the villagers and should be ruled as unlawful, barrister James Lee, representing Lai, said.
The government's lawyer, Stewart Wong SC, responded that expectations could be overridden by "a change of policy", as in the 2010 review of country parks.
Lai is applying for a judicial review of the government's decision, even as the map took effect on December 30.
Under the New Territories Small House Policy, male indigenous villagers over the age of 18 can apply to build a house of up to three storeys, no higher than 8.23 metres, on ancestral land.
Lee claimed the government gave its word to village representatives in 1979 that a buffer of at least 91 metres around each village would be kept in place in any plans for country parks.
He also said that when the government drafted land-use plans on country parks in 2010, it put an emphasis on the natural environment, but failed to consult the villagers on how the changes might affect them.
The judicial review should be allowed as more than 50 enclaves across Hong Kong were facing the same problem, Lee said.
Wong argued that the authorities had not failed the villagers' expectations as any promise they might have made would have been based on an old policy. It was unreasonable for villagers to ask the government to keep the promise forever, he said.
He said that in the 2010 review, the government had to take into account wider interests, such as environmental protection and the public right to enjoy the parks, and it had the right to change the policy.
The judge reserved judgment to an unspecified date.