Housing plans targeting the city's green belts are raising the ire of residents and, according to environmentalists, run contrary to Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's policy address early this year.
Development blueprints released by the government this year include vegetated sites near existing homes, despite Leung's pledge in January that his administration would try to rezone more green belts that were "devegetated [or] deserted" in order to boost housing. The plans angered local communities.
In the latest twist to the controversy, the government offered to scale down the development of a green belt in Sham Shui Po by cutting 380 flats, after residents of two upscale estates, Dynasty Heights and Beacon Heights, voiced fears that greenery in the area would be destroyed.
The proposal now is to build 980 private flats on 2.04 hectares of land to the north of Yin Ping Road on Beacon Hill, down from 1,360 flats on 2.84 hectares.
Dr Maria Francesch-Huidobro, a City University environmental policy academic who lives in Dynasty Heights, said the plan was just one of the cases indicating a policy shift on the use of green belts.
"The government is contradicting its own guidelines on rezoning, which says green belts should not be developed unless there is an overriding social need," she said.
"Building 1,000 units on a mountain is not really solving the housing shortage."
The administration says the revised site is home to at least 300 trees - though Green Sense put the figure at 2,000. Both sides said their estimates were preliminary.
Residents of both estates formed a concern group and collected 30,000 signatures from people living in and outside the area to oppose the government's proposal to sell the green belt for private housing.
About 200 residents met the Planning Department on April 15, after which officers announced cutting out the southeastern portion of the original site "so that the housing project keeps a distance from the artificial slope to the north of Dynasty Heights". The new plan will be tabled to the Sham Shui Po district council on Tuesday.
"Since the development involves a vegetated slope, it is inevitable that trees and plants will be affected," the department said in a paper to the district councillors. "The authorities will require the developer to conserve and move existing trees with conservation value or to plant new trees."
Residents and green activists are unimpressed by the government's compromise.
"What they are doing is moving the development boundary a bit farther from our estate," Alex Wong Jean-wah, of the concern group, said.
"However, the development will still be close to the [Lion Rock] country park and it still uses green-belt land … It's a matter of principle. Green belts should be breathing space for urban residents."
In fact, the Yin Ping Road land is just one of seven vegetated green belts that the government will put up for sale in the current fiscal year for private housing development, according to a citywide study by Green Sense.
Economist and government adviser Dr Andy Kwan Cheuk-chiu said certain sacrifices were unavoidable in order to meet the administration's target of providing 470,000 new flats in 10 years.
"There has to be a balance," Kwan, of the long-term housing strategy steering committee, said. "Green groups oppose development on green belts and oppose reclamation, too.
"If wherever is green can't be used for housing, Hong Kong will have to bear the cost of social unrest brought by high property prices."
Watch: Rezoning of Tai Po green belt site causes controversy among residents