Shalotung columbarium plans opposed by most green groups

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    Shalotung, near Tai Po Market, is one of Hong Kong's loveliest rural areas (see Shalotung superb for scenery, and easy strolling). It's one of the main country park "enclaves" – largely surrounded by country park, but with land that's unprotected.

    Much of the area was bought by a developer perhaps three decades or more ago, and this developer has since put forward various plans – including an 18-hole golf course, since reduced to nine-hole course, both coupled with luxury housing, and after these were rejected on environmental grounds, recently suggested a columbarium. The columbarium plan has also proven controversial plan. From a South China Morning Post news item:

    Sha Lo Tung project in doubt

    Major green groups call on government to halt columbarium development which threatens to destroy wildlife haven

    Ada Lee, Jun 14, 2012    


    Pressure is mounting for a pilot development and conservation project in ecologically sensitive Sha Lo Tung to be shelved after 10 environmental groups jointly voiced their concerns about it.

    The groups said the project, in which a developer plans a columbarium on part of the 4.1-hectare site while conserving the rest, could destroy the butterfly and dragonfly haven. They also said it offers a HK$6 billion opportunity to the developer.

    Describing it as "against common sense" and "not in line with government policies", they said the government should do a land-swap deal with the Sha Lo Tung Development Company, allowing the columbarium, with its 670,000 urn niches, to be built somewhere else. The Sha Lo Tung site should then be incorporated into the adjacent Pat Sin Leng Country Park.

    Ruy Barretto, a specialist in environmental law, said the project was not in line with the government's 2004 nature-conservation policy and should be shelved until the incoming government reviewed the policy.

    "We're sure that other fresh and open minds looking at this will see our proposal as sensible," said Barretto, a barrister and member of the Hong Kong Countryside Foundation that was set up last year with chief executive-elect Leung Chun-ying as one of the founders.

    The project was launched after a policy change in 2004 to allow a public-private partnership to develop the less sensitive areas of a site while preserving most of the rest at the developer's expense. The developer would work in partnership with an environmental group. In this case, Green Power is the partner.

    Former Observatory director Lam Chiu-ying, also a member of the countryside foundation, said the refuse, sewage, and smoke from joss sticks at the columbarium could seriously pollute the habitat, and the buildings could be eyesores.

    The groups estimated the developer could make HK$6 billion on the project, if one niche was sold for HK$100,000. The government would make HK$3 billion from the land sale.

    They said the environmental report had ignored many key issues and called on the public to speak out.

    The other organisations to sign the statement include the Conservancy Association, Friends of the Earth, Hong Kong Bird Watching Society, Green Lantau Association, Green Peace, Green Produce Foundation, Green Sense, and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.

    Green Power chief executive Dr Man Chi-sum said that while incorporating the site into the country park could offer good protection, it would be a passive approach and they were seeking to conserve it "in an active manner".

    The developer has agreed to make an upfront payment of HK$120 million into the Environment and Conservation Fund to finance establishment of a nature reserve and future maintenance and management.



    Letter published in South China Morning Post yesterday:

    Important rural site should not become columbarium

    I wish to highlight the underlying planning and land issues related to the proposed development of a huge columbarium at Sha Lo Tung.

    The development proposal is for four major buildings to be erected to house 60,000 niches. At a rate of HK$100,000 per niche, this will generate revenue of HK$6 billion and require the developer to pay to the government a HK$3 billion land premium for the direct grant by private treaty of some four hectares of highly ecologically sensitive government land to enable this scheme to proceed.

    There is no land exchange involved as all the private land in Sha Lo Tung is to remain in private hands.

    Why on earth is the administration selling off such a site in such a location with so little in return other than generating super profits for the developer and a huge premium for itself?

    In 2004 and again in 2010, Sha Lo Tung was ranked by separate government studies to be second only to Mai Po as the most important ecological site in Hong Kong. So it is inexplicable that officials are even considering such a lousy deal when it is blindingly obvious that there should be no development at all in Sha Lo Tung and that the most appropriate way forward is for a "value for value" land exchange, to be offered with a suitable columbarium site identified elsewhere of sufficient size to compensate the Sha Lo Tung Development Company for the mainly agricultural land it owns.

    In fact, the government has already identified such a site close by, on the former Shuen Wan landfill adjacent to Tai Po Industrial Estate, which could be considered for use in such a "value for value" land exchange.

    A columbarium of half the size should generate sufficient revenue to adequately compensate the developer for the land it owns. This would mean a straight swap of land without the need to charge a premium.

    If this were to occur, the approximate 26 hectares of private land would be surrendered and, together with a similar amount of government land that exists within this priority enclave, could then be subsumed into Pat Sin Leng Country Park for the daily enjoyment forever by Hong Kong people under the appropriate statutory management and protection of the Country and Marine Parks Authority.

    This is an altogether better-value scheme as far as the public is concerned, which the developer should now pursue with the government.

    Roger Nissim, director, Hong Kong Countryside Foundation

    Note: CY Leung – HK's new Chief Executive – is a Founder Member of HK Countryside Foundation

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