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Chp 56, Sha Lo Tung – Forty years champion for the environment

Sha Lo Tung

The Agriculture and Fisheries Department (AFD) must have thought an 18-hole golf course with 62 houses, 200 flats and 160 village houses on 66 hectares of land a welcome addition to Hong Kong’s countryside, when it approved the development proposal in October 1991. Except that nearly half of the land, 31 hectares, was in the Pat Sin Leng Country Park, while the rest would occupy the Sha Lo Tung valley, a historic village and a haven for rare species of dragonflies.

The development proposal sparked outrage from green groups. On 24 October 1991, the leading green groups of Hong Kong, including the Conservancy Association, petitioned the Legislative Council and the Executive Council against the scheme. They took their objection to the Country Parks Board in November 1991, highlighting the ecological and heritage value of Sha Lo Tung and opposing the encroachment into the Country Park.

In January 1992, the green groups submitted another joint petition to the Legislative Council objecting the golf course. Views were divided among members of the Legislative Council, with some on the side of the green groups while others favouring development. With the support of five other green groups including CA, Friends of the Earth decided to apply for judicial review against the government approval. In the meantime, CA collected 24,000 signatures against the scheme which were submitted to the Governor on 31 January 1992.

On 23 February 1992 CA organized a study trip to Sha Lo Tung with botanical expert and CA founding member Dr Hu Shiu Ying to inspect the ecological significance of the valley. On their way they ran into Governor Sir David Wilson who was then hiking the New Territories countryside, and made an impromptu petition to the Governor.

The joint action by the green groups led to a decision by the Country Parks Board in February 1992 to freeze any further approval for golf courses in country parks, pending the outcome of the Sha Lo Tung court case. By then additional applications for golf courses were flooding in, with proposals for developments in Luk Keng, Yuen Long and Lau Fau Shan.

In March 1992 the Town Planning Board rejected a proposal for golf course in Luk Keng. Then, on 13 April 1992, the High Court quashed the Country Park Board’s approval for the Sha Lo Tung golf course – a historic victory for Friends of the Earth and for the green groups together.

But the victory was far from complete: it only prohibited developments in country parks, but did not offer any protection for Sha Lo Tung Valley, which was not part of the Country Park nor regulated by any town plan. Instead, the possibility of a golf course for Sha Lo Tung became even more real when the valley was identified as a “Recreation Priority Area”, where golf course development was possible, in the Tai Po Development Programme of the Territory Development Department. In January 1993, CA wrote to Director of Planning Mr Peter Pun expressing concern over TDD’s development programme, and highlighting the need to protect Sha Lo Tung’s and preserve its high ecological and heritage value. But just as CA feared, the development proposal went ahead, this time without encroaching onto the Country Park. The developer even completed a draft Environmental Impact Assessment report to the Director for Environmental Protection, on which both FoE and WWF commented in September 1993.

On 3 August 1994, five green groups including CA, FoE, WWF, Green Power and Green Lantau Association submitted a joint “Position Paper: Objection to the Proposed Development at Sha Lo Tung, Tai Po” to Governor Chris Patten, citing five reasons:

  • Improper land use planning: The proposal contravened the Convention of Biodiversity as well as previous planning studies such as the Territorial Development Strategy; the proper land use should have been SSSI (Sites of Special Scientific Interest);
  • Mal-administration in processing the Sha Lo Tung development: The application was originally rejected in 1979 due to objection by Water Services Department and AFD, but was approved by government a year later without adequate justification – a subject of a complaint by FoE to the Commissioner for Administrative Complaints;
  • Ecological impacts, including habitat destruction (pollution of freshwater streams) and loss of biodiversity (threat to mammals, dragonflies and plants);
  • Impact on freshwater supply, the Sha Lo Tung Valley being water gathering ground which would be lost to the golf course; and
  • Development impact: green groups would oppose even if the developer dropped the golf course proposal and only build houses.

The case dragged on for some time until 1996 when the Advisory Council for the Environment decided not to endorse the EIA report. Government gazetted part of the site as SSSI. But things took a worse turn: villagers sabotaged the valley by digging up the land and stacking the river side with excavated sand and mud. On 24 January 1997, Sha Lo Tung was finally put under planning control through the gazetting of a Development Permission Area (DPA) Plan, with SSSI being designated along the stream and the rest being largely classified as Unspecified zone. CA wrote to Planning Department objecting to the DPA Plan in March 1997 and proposing to rezone the major portion of Unspecified zone to Conservation Area, emphasizing integrity of the valley as a whole including the Hakka village houses. As a concession, CA suggested relaxing part of the U zone away from stream but close to the existing access road to allow for some development for recreation or village expansion – a concept which subsequently became the key to Sha Lo Tung’s conservation years later.

In 1999, Planning Department put forward three proposals for Sha Lo Tung to the Town Planning Board, ranging from conservation, a smaller scale of development, to medium development. CA responded to the Board with a firm view in support of conservation. The Town Planning Board eventually decided to publish an Outline Zoning Plan for Sha Lo Tung in January 2001 with most land being zoned Conservation Area or Green Belt, thus establishing the conservation-first principle for Sha Lo Tung although even then, CA’s view was that most of the valley should be Conservation rather than Green Belt, with the exception of the area away from stream but close to the access road.

Later on, a possible solution for Sha Lo Tung began to emerge under the government’s new conservation policy. By 2008, that solution was still being worked out as a private-public partnership between the government, the developer and local green group Green Power.

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June 2, 2015 - Posted by | Dr WK Chan book

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