Construction of an artificial beach in Tai Po was approved based on a "false and misleading" statement made by the government about the site's ecological value to a vulnerable species of seahorse, the High Court heard.
The claim was made yesterday at the start of a judicial review launched by activist Ho Loy, of the Save Lung Mei Alliance, in a bid to revoke the building permit of the beach at Lung Mei to protect rare spotted seahorses.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature says the species is vulnerable.
Ho's lawyers argued the Civil Engineering and Development Department (CEDD) made an "incomplete, misleading, wrong or false" statement to the Environmental Protection Department (EPD) to get the permit.
The statement says: "Lung Mei did not appear to serve as critical/unique habitats for species of conservation importance or support significant populations" of spotted seahorses. Barrister Jin Pao, for the CEDD, "firmly denied" it was a misleading or false statement.
The project has been put on hold pending the legal challenge, and the court heard that the contractor who won the construction contract planned to claim compensation for the delay.
Barrister Nicholas Cooney SC, for Ho, said the CEDD had failed to conduct an ecological impact assessment on the seahorse before making the statement, rendering it "false".
The court heard that the CEDD made the statement after consulting the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which had concluded no further assessment concerning the seahorse was needed under law. It reasoned that although the seahorse was listed as vulnerable, it was "moderately abundant" in Hong Kong waters.
Cooney said there were four sightings in 2007 and 2008 in the surrounding Plover Cove area. Last year, the area had 27 sightings, including two at Lung Mei.
Benjamin Yu SC, for the EPD, said the proposal for the beach was seen to be in the public interest. He argued that the legal challenge came too late, as no concerns about the seahorse were raised during a public consultation. He also noted that a general assessment had been held and one "specifically" on the species had been deemed unnecessary - a professional judgment that the court should not disturb unless it was "plainly perverse".
A decision was reserved.