Almost two weeks on from the razing of a mangrove in an ecologically important North Lantau bay, a blocked footpath has thwarted planning officials' efforts to check whether zoning rules have been breached.
A gate on a path over private land had prevented Planning Department staff from entering a site of special scientific interest (SSSI) at Tai Ho Wan, a department spokesman said. The gate is padlocked and stands about 1.8 metres high.
Villagers blocked the path last month in protest over a new zoning plan that would add teeth to the SSSI status and, they say, harm their right to develop the land. The destruction of the mangrove was also part of the protest.
"A gate has been erected and staff were unable to enter to carry out fieldwork," the spokesman said. "The department will continue to try to enter the site to study the latest situation."
The destruction of the mangrove has led to questions over whether planning laws are effective at protecting ecologically sensitive areas near private land, and whether enforcement needs to be stronger.
The department last week vowed to investigate whether felling of the mangrove had breached town planning rules.
Former Democratic Party lawmaker Lee Wing-tat, now head of land-policy think tank Land Watch, said the inability to enforce rules exposed holes in the planning mechanism.
"The [Town Planning] Ordinance gives the department power to execute these duties so if they can't do it then its just silly," said Lee, adding that it appeared that rules had been broken by villagers.
Under interim planning rules for the area, no land or body of water within the SSSI can be excavated, filled or diverted.
Lee said the department had an obligation to "explore all possibilities" to enter the area, including by boat, and asking for police assistance. But it would take determination.
"Police are usually reluctant to talk to hostile villagers over private land issues unless there is enough evidence of a breach in the law… but they can at least be called in to keep the peace if civil servants are in fear of attack."
He said enforcement measures under the ordinance would need to be strengthened.
"If they can't carry out immediate enforcement to protect a protected area, then what is the use of town planning rules? It will mean the rules are rubbish."
Michael Lau Wai-neng, head of local biodiversity and regional wetlands for WWF Hong Kong, said: "It exposes a weak spot in the government's ability to enforce the rules and could set a bad precedent." Lau said it did not help that SSSI status carried little protection in law. Such sites "are very fragile and must be managed and patrolled".
Roy Tam Hoi-pong, chief executive of environmental group Green Sense, said the department could not waste any more time as grass could start growing on any excavated earth.
The valley is considered the third-most ecologically important site in Hong Kong.
Lam Chu, a spokesman for the community of San Heung, which includes Tai Ho village, said standard practice was for outsiders to contact them via rural powerbrokers the Heung Yee Kuk for permission to enter. "If the [department] wants to visit, we welcome them," he said. "But, from my understanding, they have not contacted us."