New idea for rural site riles conservationists

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 August, 2010, 12:00am

A new proposal by an influential developer for a site adjoining a coastal-protection area in the northwestern New Territories is attracting strong opposition from conservationists, despite it being for a smaller development this time, and including more conservation features.

The new proposal for Ha Pak Nai, a sensitive site of ecological and archaeological value, is to develop 31 hectares, in which would be built 137 residential blocks of three storeys and, in an 'eco-camp', 12 of two storeys. A preservation area of a few hectares would be for butterflies.

The man behind the proposal is Lau Wong-fat, legislator for the Heung Yee Kuk, which looks after the interests of indigenous New Territories residents. He is also an Executive Council member.

The planner is architect and rural leader Daniel Heung Cheuk-kei, cousin of Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen. Heung has been in the news for converting a warehouse in a Sha Tin village into a luxury villa without authorisation.

Expressing concerns that the development would damage the breeding ground of egrets and rare species like horseshoe crabs, green groups have submitted their views to the Town Planning Board during a one-month consultation. It had already received over 250 public comments by Thursday, a day before the end.

According to a tentative schedule, board members will examine the proposal in October.

It is Lau's third proposal for the site since 2007. The first two, both featuring a large golf course, were withdrawn as a result of public opposition. They were much larger, 75 hectares then 45.

The latest, submitted to the board last month, is 60 per cent smaller. It has few details about the 'eco-camp' and 'Butterfly World'.

Lau has proposed changing the site's zoning from agricultural use to other rural uses, which would allow low-rise residences.

But the new proposal has been criticised by green groups as unreasonable and insensitive.

'Lau proposed a butterfly-protection area, but the area is not on his land but the government's, showing he has little commitment to conservation,' said Dr Man Chi-sum, chief executive of Green Power.

According to the developer, Lau holds 20 per cent of the site area. Close to half is owned by the government, and indigenous villagers and other private parties hold 18 per cent and 12 per cent respectively.

'How can we ensure the outcome of the project, given the uncertainties of the land ownership?' Man said.

Another controversy is the fact that it lies at the centre of the Ha Pak Nai archaeological site, which has important historical remains. The development site occupies 70 per cent of the archaeological site.

'A 'Butterfly World' is better than having a golf course,' said Dr Alan Leung Sze-lun, conservation manager at WWF. 'But still, we are not convinced.'

Leung said one of the two egret-nesting areas near the site was active. Apart from horseshoe crabs, other valuable species like black-faced spoonbills and fiddler crabs are also recorded in Pak Nai. The southern part is zoned as a coastal-protection area, for its ecological value and scenic landscape.

'The zoning request should not be accepted, as a major portion of the site is still in active agricultural use, including for orchards,' Leung said.

The campaign manager of the Conservancy Association, Peter Li Siu-man, said he was worried about traffic to the area.

Lepidopterists' Society chairman Yiu Vor said the butterfly zone was a gimmick. 'Without commitment to recruiting conservation experts, management funds and operational plans, I don't think the preservation will be successful,' he said.

The developer said it would turn the passive and 'wasted' site into a scenic spot attracting eco-tourism.