In its toughest move yet against misuse of rural land, the government has taken back ownership of a country park enclave where a developer has built an underground columbarium in defiance of an official order. The plot of land at Tei Tong Tsai on Lantau Island is one of 53 sites next to or surrounded by country parks that were formally identified yesterday as being without zoning protection, meaning anything can be built on them if does not breach the land lease. The site, two kilometres east of the Big Buddha at Ngong Ping and part of the island's Buddhist heartland, was taken back on Monday after the owner defied the order to rectify land-lease breaches within a week. 'We have found lease breaches on the lot but the lot owner has not rectified the situation despite warnings given by us,' a Lands Department spokesman said. The department warned the landowner in February this year that the leased land did not allow columbarium developments. But officers could do nothing at the time as no urns containing human ashes were at the site. The move follows a long tussle between the government and the site's owner, Lippo Star International, which vowed yesterday to take court action to reclaim the property it bought in October for HK$8 million. 'The government has no right to take away our land,' director Michael Chiang Hon-man said. 'We didn't break any law as the site comes with a licence for cremation and storage of urns.' The company estimates it could earn at least HK$450 million if all the proposed niches are sold at the quoted price of HK$38,000. 'We will not let the government take away our property unless it compensates us for our loss. We could have built 12,000 niches there,' said Chiang, a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects' building committee. It was not clear last night if niches the developer claims to have already sold have been occupied and how the niche owners' rights will be affected. The government's resumption of the land came days after Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-shing met Buddhist monks from Tei Tong Tsai and Luk Wu to discuss the proliferation of private funeral ash repositories in the area. Monks, who fear the new facilities will destroy the area's peaceful ambience and attract excessive vehicle traffic, were preparing a petition about their concerns when a respected elder died last week, forcing postponement of their plans. Land registry records show ownership of the 300,000 square foot plot has already been transferred from Lippo Star, a British Virgin Islands-registered company, to the government. The department spokesman did not give details of the breaches attributed to Lippo Star, but a Tei Tong Tsai resident said a notice posted at the site suggested the current use might be in conflict with the agricultural use specified in the land lease. The seizure is expected to send a strong deterrent signal to developers of private columbarium scrambling for rural sites so as to profit from a city-wide shortage of urn niches, as the government consults the public over establishing a columbarium licensing system. Twenty-one suspected private niche storage areas were identified in April by the South China Morning Post, many of them involved in land-lease disputes over storage of human ash.