Honokohau Act Confuses DLNR, Angers West Hawai'i Boaters

posted in: October 2012 | 0

West Hawai`i boaters simply wanted clean restrooms, garbage pick-up, a decent water system, lighting and other basic infrastructure at Honokohau small boat harbor.

The bill they initiated last legislative session (House Bill 2398) proposed establishing a Honokohau Marina Development District that would assume harbor management from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation.

Many boaters testified that under the current management regime the harbor is “in worse condition than many third world marinas, and has long been an embarrassment to West Hawai`i’s marine community.”

The National Park Service, native Hawaiian civic clubs, and environmentalists opposed the measure out of concern that the new district would encourage development incompatible with the area’s rich natural and cultural resources.

In the end, however, the Legislature dismissed the boaters’ proposal and instead took steps to put the DLNR’s Honokohau lands into the hands of the Public Land Development Corporation, created by the Legislature in 2011 to help state lands generate more revenue for the DLNR.

DLNR administrator William Aila had submitted testimony on the bill, stating, “[D]ue to the current economic climate there is little if any interest in developing the surrounding fast lands within the harbor. The department would prefer that the Public Land Development Corporation, administratively attached to the department, develop the property surrounding the small boat harbor because eighty-five percent of the proceeds would be deposited into the Boating Special Fund.”

The PLDC had expressed interest in developing the harbor, which operates at a yearly deficit of $200,000, despite annual rental income of $200,000, Aila testified.

A gutted and reworded bill eventually passed (Act 282) and was signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie on April 6. The act directs the DLNR’s Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation and Land Division to transfer to the PLDC development rights to three parcels totaling more than 200 acres surrounding the Honokohau small boat harbor.

The boaters were not pleased.

“None of the people interested in the original bill were in support of the changes that were made. They were also not consulted. Basically, it got bushwacked in the closing hours of the session,” says charter boat operator Rick Gaffney.

For critics who complain that the PLDC hasn’t been transparent enough or that it will ignore community concerns, Act 282 is simply proof.

The boaters later met with PLDC co-creators Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Sen. Malama Solomon, as well as its executive director, Lloyd Haraguchi, “to find out in their minds exactly what this bill is going to do for Honokohau,” Gaffney says.

“They essentially told us there is nothing the PLDC can do to support those basic needs. What we learned is the bushwacked bill does absolutely nothing for Honokohau harbor and the West Hawai`i boating and ocean communities,” he says.

To him, the Legislature directed the DLNR to transfer rights to Honokohau because it was trying to “jump start the PLDC process … by specifying a specific location to actually do something.”

So what happens now?

It’s been months since it was signed and DLNR officials, at least, are still unclear about what, if anything, they’re supposed to do to implement the act.

DOBOR administrator Ed Underwood shrugs his shoulders when asked what a transfer of development rights might mean or accomplish.

“I don’t know,” he says, adding that under the 2011 law establishing the PLDC, it would seem that eventually all DOBOR lands will have to be transferred to the PLDC. He says he thinks that the PLDC will need a lease from the Land Board for the harbor lands at Honokohau, but that he doesn’t know whether transferring development rights is something that would require Land Board approval.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out, the process,” he says.

Land Division administrator Russell Tsuji says he was not even aware his division’s lands were a part of Act 282 and had assumed that the Honokohau lands were all under DOBOR.

Neither Underwood nor Tsuji was preparing anything to implement Act 282 as of press time.

According to a flow chart issued last month by the governor’s office outlining the process that PLDC projects are to follow, as well as recent statements by Dela Cruz, the agency is still a long way from doing anything with the Honokohau lands, even if it had a proposal ready to launch right now.

To start, DOBOR and Land Division will have to transfer their development rights to the PLDC via a memorandum of agreement or memorandum of understanding that must be approved by both the Land Board and the PLDC board, says Dela Cruz.

Although the legislation was signed several months ago, no MOA or MOU is in the works.

“Too early,” he says, noting that he and Solomon have asked that the PLDC adopt a strategic plan before undertaking projects. (The PLDC board was scheduled to receive a briefing on that request at its September 20 meeting.)

Addressing the confusion over what transferring development rights means in the context of the PLDC, Dela Cruz says the process differs from what is normally meant by the term in the private sector, where an agricultural landowner might sell development rights to an urban landowner seeking more density. In return, the agricultural land remains in ag.

In the case of the PLDC, though, “basically, it’s a management right, the right to pursue projects,” Dela Cruz says, adding, “What needs to be made clear is the title agency never loses title. It’s always going to be in the title of DOBOR or DLNR.”

Whatever projects the PLDC pursues at Honokohau, or anywhere for that matter, must be supported by the county, Dela Cruz says.

Although the statutes that govern the PLDC exempt it from county zoning laws, Dela Cruz says development projects need to connect to infrastructure.

“If you’re building a visitor center … the LDC would have to approach the county and say, ‘Do you have capacity?’ We have to get permission from the county to connect. Once that conversation begins, the county can dictate conditions, no different from a unilateral agreement. The project is dead without the county and title agency,” he says.

At Honokohau, it’s unclear what development, if any, the county will allow the PLDC to undertake.

Nearly a decade ago, the DLNR sought to develop what it saw as underused land surrounding the small boat harbor. The agency signed a development agreement with Jacoby Development, Inc., which proposed the 530-acre marina expansion/resort “Kona Kai Ola” project that spanned lands owned by the DLNR and the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and included hundreds of hotel rooms, some 1,800 condos, and commercial space.

Jacoby later scaled back the proposed marina as well as the number of proposed hotel units in response to community and environmental concerns. But after slogging through the county zoning and state environmental review process, the developer eventually walked away from the project when faced with the possibility of having to also navigate a federal National Environmental Policy Act review.

Then in 2009, the Hawai`i County Council approved a recommendation by its Planning Department to downzone the DLNR lands at Honokohau, shifting them from Urban Expansion to Open. The move was primarily aimed at settling a lawsuit brought by a group of native Hawaiians seeking to protect their traditional and customary practices in the area, which is adjacent to Kaloko-Honokohau National Historic Park. It also reflected the preservation and development goals laid out in the Kona Community Development Plan, which the county adopted in September 2008.

Placing the area in the Open zone “will assure the coordinated development of the area, and protection of the significant natural and cultural resources in the amendment area and on surrounding lands will maintain the general welfare and prosperity of the people of Hawai`i island,” the Planning Department stated before the council’s decision.

At the PLDC board’s July meeting, board member Robert Bunda asked Haraguchi whether any parties or developers were interested in the Honokohau lands. Haraguchi mentioned that Jacoby was once interested, but that current interest “has not been to the degree generated by the Kona Kai Ola plan,” the minutes state.

Haraguchi did not respond to questions about Honokohau by press time.

Teresa Dawson

Volume 23, Number 4 — October 2012

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