Opinion is sharply divided over the future of border land that has been off-limits for half a century Debate is raging over the future of what environmentalists say is one of Hong Kong's last stretches of virgin land, along the border with the mainland. Suggestions include turning the wetlands and green belt areas into industrial estates, homes for the aged, luxury town houses and even a high-technology park. The idea of opening up part of the restricted zone was highlighted by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen in his first policy address last week. Since then, some developers have approached villagers about acquiring their land for future development, a move that has enraged environmentalists. Mr Tsang's proposal, in response to long-term calls by rural landlords and tycoon Li Ka-shing since 2003, seeks to release up to half of the 2,800-hectare border land for possible development. The border area, entry to which is restricted to local villagers, stretches from Deep Bay in the west to Shau Tau Kok in the east. There is no land use or zoning plan for the closed frontier area, which was set up in the 1950s for security reasons. About a third of land in the area is privately owned. Rural patriarch and legislator Cheung Hok-ming said: 'The land should not have been left idle for so many decades. In a sense it is a waste of land resources. 'Certainly, we appreciate the need to protect the environment. But it should not be an excuse to ban all development.' Mr Cheung proposes building a hi-tech park there to encourage research and development. Liberal Party legislator Sophie Leung has proposed turning the Lok Ma Chau Loop area into an estate for light manufacturing or the garment industry. Her view is shared by unionist Cheng Yiu-tong, also a member of Mr Tsang's cabinet. Mr Cheng said: 'It would create jobs if more Hong Kong businessmen return to set up factories in Hong Kong.' Fellow cabinet member Bernard Chan floated the idea of using the border land to build homes for the elderly. 'It could give our elderly citizens a more pleasant living environment than many of them have in crowded parts of the city with no views of gardens or hillsides,' he wrote in a column for the South China Morning Post last week. Shih Wing-ching, chairman of Centaline (Holdings), urged the government to take a bolder step. 'In overseas countries, there are marketplaces along borders for border-crossing traders or visitors. In Shenzhen, we have the Lowu Commercial Centre next to the checkpoint. There is no reason why we cannot have a similar retailing centre on the Hong Kong side,' he said. However, Pang Shui-kee, managing director of surveyor SK Pang, was pessimistic. He said: 'It is academic to talk about developing the closed area when proper infrastructure has not been put in place. My question is: 'What for?'. 'There is no lack of land in Hong Kong and I do not see why the government should make a fuss over developing the border area.' Green Power chief executive Man Chi-sum warned that developments could harm wildlife in the area. 'Opening up the border area does not necessarily mean turning it into a bustling, dusty urban centre. We can open the area to visitors, or develop eco-tourism to allow outsiders to enjoy the greenery,' Mr Man said. Hong Kong Institute of Planners president Stanley Yip Cho-tat warned that the border area could become a dumping ground for old cars or containers if the government failed to impose proper control over land use after opening it. Wan Wo-fai, a North District councillor and resident of the border village of Sha Tau Kok, believes 1,000 jobs could be created should the government develop the tourism potential of the area. He also claimed some developers had approached villagers after Mr Tsang announced the plan last week. Mr Wan expected developers to build luxury town houses in the area, boosting the value of villagers' land. Some surveyors estimated the value of flats in the border area could jump by 10 times to $1,000 per sqft if the closed area was opened for residential development. Tycoon Li Ka-shing raised the issue of developing an industrial district in the border area with President Hu Jintao during a visit to Beijing in 2003. His company, Cheung Kong (Holdings), and Sun Hung Kai Properties, Henderson Land and New World Development are reportedly acquiring land near the closed area. The government was expected to begin a study in the first half of next year, the Planning Department said. GETTING THERE Except for the 9,500 residents, people wanting to go into the closed area on the border must apply to the police for a 'closed area permit'. Visitors can apply for a permit at a police station in the border region or at police headquarters. The correct documentation is needed to support an application. Most people go into the closed area to visit relatives and friends or for work. Applications for sightseeing purposes are not usually entertained, according to the police. Visitors wanting to drive into the area are required to register their driving licences and car details with the police.