Developers take Tai Tan

Residents lose the battle against the bulldozers in Tai Tan, the last village in Sai Kung Country Park, as government plays the “indigenous” card.

A year-long battle to stop a rural backwater in Sai Kung Country Park being bulldozed to make way for a luxury housing estate dubbed “the Lucerne of Hong Kong” has ended in defeat.

The appeal by expatriate residents against plans for 18 luxury three-storey homes in Tai Tan, near Wong Shek Pier, was thrown out by Tai Po’s District Lands Office, partly on the grounds that the issue “only involves the local indigenous community”.

The ruling is particularly ironic as there have been no local indigenous villagers living in Tai Tan for decades. The last inhabited village on the road to Wong Shek Pier has 11 occupied homes and a permanent population of about 20 people, mostly expatriates. The application has been lodged by people living either outside Tai Tan or overseas.

Although the applicants claim they intend to live in the houses, as they are legally obliged under the Small House Policy, the scheme is being driven by Tai Po developer Yuen Seen-pun, who has made no secret of the fact the homes are aimed well-heeled buyers. Mr Yuen has told residents his luxury houses will have security guards, lifts and has plans to turn some of the village’s remaining 100-year-old Hakka homes into a residents’ clubhouse. In an apparent reference to the Alpine-style freshwater springs near the village, he says the project will transform Tai Tan into the “Lucerne of Hong Kong”.

The only thing holding up the development are the objections of expat residents. They say the development will create a hazard on the narrow, one-lane track leading to Tai Tan, and have a negative impact on an idyllic village full of wildlife and popular with weekend hikers.

Now, a year after the plans were lodged, the Tai Po Lands Department has formally dismissed the objections and an appeal lodged by the only resident couple to successfully object before the deadline.

A letter signed by Andrew Chung of the District Lands Office in Tai Po said the couple were not in a position to complain about the identity and motives of the applicants. “Under the Small House Policy, the objection to cross-village application from non-indigenous villagers cannot be entertained because this issue only involves the local indigenous community,” the letter said. Environmental objections were also dismissed: “The relevant departments have no adverse comment on the proposed developments and the application sites are outside the Country Park.”

As for concerns over the ability of a single-track lane with no pavement to cope with the new homes, Chung’s letter said: “Road safety is the responsibility of all road users.”

In any case, Chung concluded, the residents’ appeal “cannot be accepted as it was received by this office on 24.5.2010 which is not within the 28 days from my letter issued to you on 22.4.2010”.

“We’re disappointed but not terribly surprised,” said one of the residents who lodged the objection, but who asked not to be named after receiving an unannounced visit from representatives of the applicants.

“It does seem unfair, though, that we’re effectively told we have no say as long-term residents while the village’s future is decided by a developer and people who have never lived here.”

The District Lands Office says work on the development can begin within nine to 12 months. Mr Yuen, meanwhile, claims to have another project in the pipeline for 50 homes in nearby Uk Tau. Although which swanky European destination it will resemble remains to be seen.