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Hong Kong residents up in arms over light pollution

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Chiu Mung-ngor and her husband paid $3.3 million for their Hong Kong flat in a luxury apartment block in 2009, lured into buying it partly by its view of the harbour.
/ Source: Reuters

HONG KONG (Reuters Life!) - Chiu Mung-ngor and her husband paid $3.3 million for their Hong Kong flat in a luxury apartment block in 2009, lured into buying it partly by its view of the harbour.

But their enjoyment was short-lived. The completion last October of a three-storey high LED advertising billboard on the roof of a nearby shopping mall blocked the harbour view, while the billboard lights began shining into the living room and bedrooms until midnight.

Chiu and other residents complained to the mall, the developer, the apartment block's management firm, the government, politicians and activists. Nothing changed.

Now, ten parties owning a dozen properties in the building in the Tsim Sha Tsui area may launch Hong Kong's first legal action about light pollution, claiming the billboard has ruined the value of their properties as well as their quality of life.

"The beginning of October, one couple from Australia -- they loved the apartment, they come back to visit four times, decided to rent it," Chiu said, telling how three prospective tenants have been put off by the flashing billboard 250 metres away.

"Then all of a sudden, the sign comes on. So they still tried to accomodate so they asked around to see how late the sign would be turned off. Finally they decided they could not handle it."

Chiu only managed to find a short-term tenant after reducing the rent for the 1,200-sq ft flat to US$8,300 to $6,300 a month.

The action started by the apartment residents has set off fresh complaints from nearby residents about overly bright buildings.

Mary Elvin has lived in the area for 20 years and said that many residents have left because of the break-neck pace of development, causing noise, light and traffic misery.

She said she suffered for six years while the shopping mall opposite her was under construction but now faces not only the lights from the mall but also the reflection from the mirrored panels on the side of the building.

"I've got double curtains in my bedroom. I haven't got big curtains in my living room and why should I have to?" she said.

"Should we live in dungeons?"

Complaints about light pollution have risen six-fold since 2004, with the illuminations contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, said Han Chu Hon-keung, environmental affairs manager of the group Friends of the Earth.

"In Hong Kong the population has grown less than six percent in the last 10 years, but energy consumption jumped by 80 percent. What a wastage," he said.


There is no specific legislation in Hong Kong on outdoor lighting, and complaints are handled on a case-by-case basis.

Prior to 2000, flashing lights were banned in Hong Kong because they were a hazard to planes landing at the airport, which was situated in the heart of the city.

But after the airport moved to Lantau island, the government came under pressure from developers and advertisers to allow flashing decorations and billboards on buildings.

In fact, the government itself invested money in a light show that takes place around the harbour, sparking competition among building owners who began to dress up their buildings with light -- even in residential areas.

But public pressure is mounting, and on March 28 lawmaker Audrey Eu will table a motion in the Legislative Assembly for the government to consider bringing back lighting regulations.

"So far the fight was really environmentalists, who said this is really bad for the community, the energy is bad because it gives you more air pollution," said district councilor and urban activist Paul Zimmerman.

"But now we have property owners saying,'Look, listen! This is going to impact the value of my property.' Now certainly, this is where suddenly the whole of Hong Kong is very sensitive."