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Hong Kong courts

Villager sues small Hong Kong developer in bid to get two houses built as part of land swap deal for ecologically rich area

Lee Pak-yan has accused Sha Lo Tung Development Company of breach of contract in failing to negotiate any plan to build homes for affected villagers

PUBLISHED : Monday, 24 September, 2018, 9:52pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 25 September, 2018, 4:21am

An indigenous villager is suing a small developer that agreed to protect one of Hong Kong’s most ecologically rich enclaves through an unprecedented land swap with the government, claiming his family was left out of the development plan after 38 years of waiting.

Lee Pak-yan accused Sha Lo Tung Development Company of breach of contract in failing to negotiate any plan to build houses for affected villagers, which he said was part of an agreement in 1979 to turn Sha Lo Tung in Tai Po district into a golf course.

He is now seeking a court order on behalf of his late father for the developer to honour its agreement in its negotiations with the government to include for him two new three-storey houses, equipped with gardens and parking spots, on top of damages and interest.

The Tai Po resident said in a writ filed to the High Court on Friday that his father, Lee Chi-ying, and other villagers of Sha Lo Tung Lei Uk and Sha Lo Tung Cheung Uk had agreed to sell their land and houses to the developer in exchange for 160 newly built homes in a different area.

The terms stipulated that each existing village house would be bought at HK$200,000 ($US25,600), and each new home would be built – at a cost of HK$200,000 paid out of the villagers’ own pocket – with three floors of 700 sq ft, accompanied by a 300 sq ft garden.

Landmark land swap deal is a win for Hong Kong conservation

Lee Snr, who was part-owner of five houses, would be entitled to two new small houses, according to the writ.

On August 12, 1982, Lee Snr assigned his share of the lands and houses to the developer for HK$400,000 ($US51,200). He also agreed in February 1989 to deliver vacant possession of two of the houses for HK$200,000, and subsequently received HK$100,000 from the developer.

But because of the rich biodiversity in the area, the government designated large parts as a site of special scientific interest in 1997, effectively barring any construction or farming.

By 2004, Sha Lo Tung became one of 12 priority sites for enhanced protection under the government’s “New Nature Conservation Policy”.

The enclave ranks second only to Mai Po and the Inner Deep Bay Ramsar Site in ecological significance, given its relatively unpolluted streams, marshes and woodland. It is a haven for rare dragonflies.

On June 15 last year, the government announced an unprecedented non-in-situ land exchange to promote the long-term conservation of Sha Lo Tung.

The plan would require the developer to surrender 25 hectares (62 acres) of private land in the area in exchange for the government granting 50 hectares at Shuen Wan restored landfill, near Tai Po industrial estate, for the development of a private golf course.

Sha Lo Tung landowner may be forced to sell holdings

But there was no news of any agreement to rebuild houses for the affected villagers.

Lee said that he had understood the villagers’ relocation to be “part and parcel” of the Sha Lo Tung Development Plan, and that the developer would include the building of new houses in its negotiations with the government, while the land was held on trust for the villagers.

“In accepting the land exchange, the conduct of the defendant leads a reasonable man to believe the defendant does not intend to fulfil its obligation … thereby constituting a breach of contract,” the writ said.

“The deceased have been left out of the Sha Lo Tung Development Plan after having waited for 38 years.”