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Hong Kong Court OKs Harbor Reclamation

March 10, 2004|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

HONG KONG — Environmentalists lost a legal battle to block a controversial landfill project in Hong Kong's main harbor when a court ruled Tuesday that the government could proceed with plans to fill in more of the shrinking waterway for roads and buildings.

Victoria Harbor, which separates mountainous Hong Kong Island from the rest of the territory on the Chinese mainland, is one of the world's most spectacular urban settings, but steady commercial development over the decades has left it barely half its original size. Conservationists have banded together to resist further infilling.

The challenge to the harbor project, a rare attempt in Asia to block major urban development on environmental grounds, was driven in part by a new sense of empowerment among Hong Kong residents. The environmentalists, under the banner of the Society for the Protection of the Harbor, filed their challenge two months after a huge protest -- one of the largest in Hong Kong's history -- had forced the government last summer to abandon efforts to ram through an unpopular anti-subversion law.

Tuesday's ruling thus carried added significance for a government that had found itself increasingly unpopular and on the defense. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's permanent secretary for housing, planning and lands, announced that the landfill project would resume within a month and that two other reclamation proposals also would go forward.

She added that after these projects were completed, "there will be no more reclamation within the harbor."

The Hong Kong High Court rejected a claim by environmentalists that Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa exceeded his legal authority by approving the landfill project without first turning it over to a planning board, where the public could have weighed in more directly.

Harbor Protection Society Chairwoman Christine Loh said activists would study the ruling to determine whether there were grounds for appeal.

Although the environmental case was officially separate from the democratic activism that has sprung up in the territory in the last year, Tuesday's ruling was likely to dampen spirits among those working for reforms that would broaden the voting rights of residents in the quasi-autonomous region of China.

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