Land seizure rattles niche developers
Private columbarium developers in land lease disputes with the government were shocked yesterday to learn that the government had seized one such site on Lantau Island.
But they said they did not believe the Lands Department's move to take back the 300,000 square foot plot at Tei Tong Tsai was the start of a citywide crackdown. The department refused to say if any similar action was imminent.
Meanwhile, the owner of the Lantau plot said the move was unfair as it had not yet taken in any funeral urns and asked why nothing had been done about others that already had.
A consultant working on a proposed columbarium in Ma Shi Chau said of the government action, formally known as re-entry: 'I am a bit shocked as it is extremely rare for the lands officials to exercise that power.
'Normally they will threaten it with a warning letter but they never really enforce it,' said the consultant who did not want to be named. 'I suspect the move is a deterrent. When there are 10 parties breaching rules, of course you will take down the worst one as a warning to the rest.'
Rita Poon of Lippo Star International, which was developing the Tei Tong Tsai site, said the seizure was unfair and had been so quick and determined that the company believed it was backed by influential parties.
'What did we do? We just put some stones there and then the officers suddenly came and fenced our land,' she said, adding that her views were purely personal. 'Why didn't they resume other illegal columbarium sites already taking in urns?'
The department has refused to comment because Lippo Star has indicated it might take legal action to reclaim the property it bought for HK$8 million.
There are at least 20 suspected illegal private columbariums in Hong Kong, including some which have already taken in urns despite land lease disputes with the government.
The Lantau action came after the owner missed a deadline to rectify land lease breaches. The site is being developed into a columbarium with 12,000 niches which the company hopes to sell for at least HK$38,000 each.
Monks from monasteries at Tei Tong Tsai and nearby Luk Wu met the Secretary for Home Affairs Tsang Tak-sing last week to discuss the impact of the building of columbariums on their neighbourhood. A spokeswoman for Tsang said the minister, also in charge of religious affairs, had passed the monks' messages to relevant officials.
The Ma Shi Chau consultant said his company was working closely with the department on how to proceed with its own plans. He said the company was prepared to pay a land premium to change the use rather than go to court.
A consultant for a columbarium project in Kwai Chung said he, too, was surprised to hear of the seizure.
But he did not see any sign that the fundamental issue facing most current private operators - the definition of what constitutes human remains - had been resolved in the Tei Tong Tsai case. 'In this case, the landowner might have violated some terms which are clearly black or white,' he said.
While the department refused to go into details about the land lease breach in Tei Tong Tsai, the notice posted by the Islands District Lands Office indicated that the property could be used only for agriculture.
'Our site inspection has revealed that the lot is not used as an agricultural lot for fruit tree growing. Further there is a website promoting and selling columbarium spaces for storage of cremated human ashes and urns on the lot,' the notice said.
'This is evidence that you have carried out the unauthorised development despite our previous notice and warning which constitutes a breach of the use as an agricultural lot for fruit tree growing,' it said.
The notice said the office had issued warnings to the developers that they risked losing their property if they did not rectify the problems within a week, which expired on Saturday.
Over the past months, nearly 200 niches, each large enough to store two urns, have been placed at the site although none has been filled.
Private columbariums in dispute
Yuen Fuk Yuen, Ma Shi Chau: 30,000 niches
2 Mei Shue Hang: 4,000
114 Kam Shan Village, under construction: 3,000
Fortune Glow Ancestral Hall, Kam Shan Road: 2,000
43-45 Kam Shan Road
1788 Tsing Shan Tsuen: 3,000
Lung Fuk Shan Memorial Garden, Lung Kwu Tan: 400
Ying Hing Monastery, near Ngong Ping
Tei Tong Tsai, near Ngong Ping
Tsui Keng Lo Wai village: 15,000
Lo Wai village, under construction
Chuk Lam Sim Yuen
Hong Dao Tang, Yiu Wing Street: 25,000
Sai Lam Temple, 198 Sheung Wo Che: 3,000
Memorial Park Hong Kong , 93 Fo Tan Village: 3,000
To Fuk Shan, 182 Sheung Wo Che: at least 30,000
Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery, Sheung Wo Che: 30,000-40,000
Sin Tin Toa Home for the Elderly, Sheung Wo Che: 7,000
Yan Hau Ancestral Hall, Fo Tan: 3,000
110 Che Nai Ping: 3,000
21 To Fung Shan
Sources: Complied by SCMP, and information from Lands Department