Confusion reigns over whether a geologically important set of islands in Tai Po will be given extra protection after plans were announced to zone them as country park land.
The Planning Department yesterday released a zoning plan for Ma Shi Chau, Yeung Chau and a small island to the northeast of Yim Tin Tsai, under which most of the area would be zoned as country park. Ma Shi Chau has been at the centre of a row over the unauthorised building of a columbarium.
But the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, which is responsible for managing country parks, would not be drawn on whether the islands would formally become the city's 25th country park.
The islands make up most of the Ma Shi Chau Special Area, designated in April 1999, and the spokeswoman said they were managed "under the Country Parks Ordinance".
"They are already under protection," she said.
But Country and Marine Parks Board member Dr Man Chi-sum said special areas had less protection.
"Country parks are given more resources for management," Man said. "The parks have wardens … and are protected with a larger buffer zone."
The three islands cover a total of 57.8 hectares and are famous for their geological features.
Ma Shi Chau consists of the outcrop of sedimentary rocks dating back 17 million years to the Permian period, which is unusual in Hong Kong.
Yeung Chau is made up of igneous rocks and is totally unspoiled. Ma Shi Chau and Yeung Chau are also part of the Tolo Channel geo-area of the Hong Kong Global Geopark of China. The geopark was designated in 2011, but the status does not offer any protection.
A Planning Department spokeswoman said country park zoning could cover special areas, and that "it is not up to our purview to decide" whether the site should become a country park.
But, Man said: "Now the areas are zoned as country park, the public might have false expectations that the areas will finally become a country park. The zoning will lose its meaning if the areas are not designated as country parks."
The country park zoning does not cover three pockets of private land on the smaller island or two pockets on Ma Shi Chau, including Shui Mong Tin, a site the government took over in 2012 after the leaseholder built an unauthorised columbarium.
Under the proposed outline zoning plan, more than half of the islands are zoned as country park, about 27 per cent of the sites are green belt and less than four per cent is zoned for residential development.