Land Board Grants Permits, Easements For ‘Auwai Repair Projects in East Maui
In the midst of a years-long legal battle with the state Board of Land and Natural Resources over its decisions to allow Alexander & Baldwin, Inc., to divert water from East Maui streams for agricultural uses in the island’s central plain, native Hawaiian taro farmers who are plaintiffs in the case have been working with the state — albeit a different agency — on identifying and completing $4.5 million worth of improvements to ancient water channels, or ‘auwai, that feed their fields.
In 2016, the state Legislature appropriated money for capital improvement projects that would repair irrigation systems that serve East Maui farms. But the funds were not immediately released because the projects seemed at first to exclusively benefit private parties.
In 2018, the Legislature passed a bill allocating the same funds for the same general purpose, but made it clear that the appropriation benefitted the public, as well, by supporting the state’s goal of food self-sufficiency.
In written testimony to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Ed Wendt, an East Maui taro farmer and member of Na Moku Aupuni O Ko‘olau Hui, described how landslides in 2016 had severely damaged “the most important, cliffside miles-long ‘auwai above Wailuanui Valley,” located on state lands.
East Maui taro farmers, who had main- tained the ‘auwai for many generations, could no longer do so, due to threats of erosion and falling rocks. As a result, Wendt stated, farmers were not getting the water they needed.
The state Department of Agriculture (DOA) was ultimately tasked with encumbering the funds and shepherding the projects to completion, in cooperation with community members and others with a stake in how water resources in the area are allocated.
On July 10 and September 25, the Land Board approved recommendations from the Department of Land and Natural Re- sources’ Land Division to grant construction right-of-entry permits to the DOA to allow contractors to implement emergency stabilization projects for ‘auwai in Honopou, Ke‘anae, and Wailuanui.
For the Honopou project, which involves stabilizing about 15 feet of the banks of the ‘auwai, the board also issued a revocable permit to Lurlyn Scott and Sanford Kekahuna to allow them to maintain the ‘auwai in the future and to continue the intensive agriculture they had already been doing on a five-acre state-owned parcel that is adjacent to their own private lands.
Ian Hirokawa, special project coordinator for the Land Division, stated in his report to the board, “Normally, a long- term disposition, such as an easement or long-term lease, would be required under such circumstances, but staff believes that an exception is appropriate in this specific case. Applicants have a long history of engaging in taro cultivation in the area, as well as maintaining the subject parcel through a revocable permit, and have committed to do both for the long term. Applicants have also complied with the terms and conditions of the revocable permit. Given the foregoing, and in consideration of the Applicants’ contribution to the state’s local food production objectives, staff believes that a revocable permit would be a satisfactory alternative to the burden and cost of an easement or long-term lease.” He also recommended that their monthly rent remain at $45.
Scott told the board her family has been growing taro on the property for generations and to continue, “it’s really crucial we take care of this issue, especially before the next storm comes.”
Board member Jimmy Gomes asked why the recommendation was for a revocable permit (RP) and not a long-term disposition. “Are they comfortable with just an RP … or would they like to expand on it and go the other way? I just want it to be a win-win because they are the stewards in the area,” he said.
“Yes, we are. We do plan to go long-term. Because this is an emergency, we want this done as soon as possible. … During this time of COVID, everyone is returning home and wants to open [fields and] start growing more food. … We want to keep that taro patch going and we really need help. … We really want to step up and get a long-term lease after this COVID,” she said.
Board member Chris Yuen pointed out that the Land Board has been under a lot of pressure to get rid of revocable permits that have been in place for many years via public auctions. “I see problems with doing that. He asked if the land were transferred to the DOA, whether they could negotiate a lease, instead.
Hirokawa said he wasn’t sure about the DOA’s ability to avoid an auction, but he then pointed out that if the tenants were to form a non-profit, the Land Division could work with them on a direct lease.
“This is a great example of working with community to maintain a system that has been in place for generations,” said board member Sam Gon.
In September, the board approved 55- year easements to the non-profit Maui Mixer, dba Na Mahi‘ai O Ke‘anae, which plans to maintain the repaired ‘auwai in Ke‘anae, and to Na Moku, to allow it to maintain the ‘auwai in Wailuanui.
Na Moku president Jerome Kekiwi, Jr. told the board that the there are approximately 200 acres of lo‘i kalo in the area and the ‘auwai is the major source of water to the valley below. He expressed his gratitude to Sen. Jill Tokuda, who chaired the Ways and Means Committee in 2016, as well as Maui County legislators
Kalani English and Lynn DeCoite. He also thanked Gov. David Ige, “who took a personal interest in this project,” as well as the DOA and Ku‘iwalu Consulting.
He also thanked the board for approving the Commission on Water Resource Management’s 2018 order that called for the restoration of several streams that serve taro farms in East Maui.
MA‘O Farms Wins Approval To Build Processing Facility
At the Land Board’s September 25 meeting, it unanimously approved the creation of a two-unit condominium property regime over lands purchased with the help of a Legacy Land Conservation Fund grant in 2008.
The $737,000 grant to the Wai‘anae Community Re-development Corpo- ration (WCRC), dba MA‘O Organic Farms, helped the organization buy 11 acres of agricultural lands that cost nearly a million dollars. The farm has since vastly expanded its operations to more than 300 acres. According to co-founder Gary Maunakea Forth, it plans to generate gross revenues of $1 million this year.
He said the farm produces 15 different products, including a variety of leafy greens and root vegetables, as well as tomatoes. Because MA‘O owns the land it farms, which he said is absolutely critical for the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i, it has been able to launch into agro-forestry. It’s planted 90 ulu trees, 200 citrus trees, and a lot of mango trees, he said, adding that it’s also experimenting with cacao.
He said Hawai‘i stores are rabid for anything local and organic.
Once the farm ramps up and is able to have all of its lands producing crops, “we project to be able to make $10 million and fund 90 percent of our internship programs,” he said.
He stressed that the youth are part of that evolution and noted that some students who interned on the farm in high school have gone to college and are now they’re running the farm. Young, local talent is key to the future of agriculture in Hawai‘i, he said.
College student Emily David testified that she started working at the farm as a junior in high school and is now finishing her associate’s degree. She said the organization’s ‘Auwai vocational and workforce specialist, Brienne Imada, is helping her figure out what her future career will be.
In addition to helping her understand the importance of farming, MA‘O is a “home to come to, to get my food from, and to ask for support,” she said.
To allow for the kind of growth the organization envisions, it needs to upgrade its packing and processing operations, which currently take place in a repurposed chicken shed located on one of its parcels.
The farm has secured $1.5 million in federal funding to build a new facility on a small portion, about a third of an acre, of the lands it purchased with Legacy Land money in 2008.
“We would like to raise the bar and have professionalism,” Forth told the board. The building would be a food safety-certified wash-pack facility that could also be used to train people.
“We’re looking to automate … to increase our ability to produce food,” he said, noting that they will likely produce about 200,000 pounds this year.
“This is a big development that we’ve been working on one way or another for the last 12 years,” he said.
David added, “Being able to have this expansion for the facility is a perfect idea … for my generation to know we have a hope.”
The Land Board approved the organization’s proposal to legally separate out the area where the facility will be built and to buy the state’s interest in that area. This would allow the federal Economic Development Administration, which is providing the grant for the building, to take over the primary lien interest in the property from the state, at least for the next 20 years.
David Smith, administrator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife, which administers the Legacy Lands program, told the board, “We feel it is in the interest of the state because it will support the organic farm. … They have a terrific program, work with at-risk youth, come up with a lot of great products … We feel it’s consistent with state program goals.” He said the payment for the third of an acre will go back into the Legacy Land program.
Program administrator David Penn said MA‘O’s situation was unique, but it was not the first time there had been a conflict between federal and state program grant requirements. In all the other cases, the program has been able to resolve issues with federal agencies without needing any approvals from the Land Board, he said.
“A complete and permanent buyout of the state’s interest is one scenario. … Another [is] a discounted limited buyout, with reversion to the Legacy Land program after the 20-year life of the [federal] grant expires,” he said.
Update on Sunset Beach ‘Burrito’ Contested Case
In December 2019, Environment Hawai‘i reported on an enforcement case brought to the Land Board the previous month regarding the illegal installation of three temporary shoreline protection structures — large sand-filled ballast tubes, or “burritos” — on a portion of Sunset Beach fronting the home of Gary and Cynthia Stanley.
The couple, who had just bought the dangerously eroding property, testified that they believed they had permission to add to an existing sand burrito that had been authorized by the Department of Land and Natural Resources as a temporary, emergency measure.
They did not have any such permission, and the Land Board fined them $3,000 and ordered them to remove the structures.
Instead, they filed a petition for a contested case hearing, which the board granted in January. In their petition, their attorney Greg Kugle argued that the requirement to remove the burritos would “create a physical taking of their real property interests.”
In a March 23 letter, however, Kugle informed state deputy attorney general William Wynhoff that the Stanleys were interested in settling, “[r]ather than put the state and themselves through the expense and delay of a contested case hearing.”
The Stanleys committed to removing the three unauthorized sand burritos they installed within 60 days of an agreement and paying the full fine within 30 days. The one sand burrito and a tarp authorized by the department in February 2019 would remain in place.
On April 28, hearing officer Chris Yuen, who is also a member of the Land Board, recommended that the board approve the settlement offer, which it ultimately did.
Coral Outplantings At Hanauma Bay
At its September 25 meeting, the Land Board granted permission to the DLNR’s Division of Aquatic Resources to outplant six small coral colony modules, each less than 25 centimeters wide, at two sites in the Hanauma Bay Marine Life Conservation District (MLCD).
The modules, grown over four years at the division’s state-of-the-art coral nursery at the Anuenue Fisheries Research Center on Sand Island, were created using micro-fragments skinned from Pocilloporid corals from O‘ahu.
“These outplantings will assist the division to determine whether additional coral restoration at Hanauma Bay MLCD is viable in order to accelerate the return of lost ecological services and functions at this important reef site for the people of the State of Hawai‘i,” a DAR report to the board states.
DAR’s Dave Gulko explained that across the 60 species of coral found in Hawai‘i, they grow at an average rate of only 1-2 cm/year.
Because Hawai‘i corals grow so slowly, areas damaged by vessel groundings, or even scientists with permits to take bits of coral, stay damaged for a long time.
He said studies of the reef outside Barber’s Point where the Cape Flattery grounded in 2005 found no coral recovery years later. “We did not get the larval recruitment and settlement we thought we’d see,” he said.
At the coral reef nursery, DAR has developed lab techniques to grow the corals much faster than they would naturally. Source corals are sawed into microfragments and attached with surgical super-glue in rows to pyramid-shaped modules, where they eventually grow together under pristine conditions. “In less than a year, they go from 10 cm of source coral to 42 cm of coral colony. In the wild, to go from 10 cm to 20 would take a decade,” he said.
After spending some time in acclimation tanks, “kind of like going from a five-star hotel to being homeless,” Gulko said, the modules are carefully planted in the ocean and monitored. To date, every module outplanted has survived.
“We may be the most expensive coral nursery on the planet, but we have the highest survival rates,” he said.
The nursery is now working to create larger modules and so far it has been able to grow one square meter of coral in less than a year. It would take 12 to 125 years to grow that much naturally, he said.
It also has developed a “coral ark” that includes 60 species, 40 of which are rare or uncommon. One of those species actuallydisappeared from Kaneʻohe Bay due to bleaching, but has been re-established.
All of the previous module outplant- ings were at sites with little to no human disturbance. The Hanauma Bay outplantings will allow DAR to assess the viability of restoring coral in an area of high human usage, he said.
Various groups testified in support of the project, including the Kohala Center, Friends of Hanauma Bay, and the Center for Biological Diversity.
Maui Land Board member Jimmy Gomes asked whether fast-growing cor- als from Florida or Australia that are not invasive could be outplanted here to help restore damaged areas.
“Basically, fast-growing species in the plant world are called weeds. … Our entire ecosystem would be modified,” Gulko replied.
Gomes then agreed it would be a bad idea.
Given the advances the nursery has made in growing corals, board member Kaiwi Yoon asked Gulko what he thought the nursery could achieve in the next 20, 50, or 100 years. “You’re not talking about a full restoration of all our reefs,” he asked.
“Actually, we are,” Gulko replied. He said that the nursery has been able to create 80 42-cm modules a year. “In the near future, DAR is hoping to acquire a property directly adjacent to us, if we get funds. We expect to grow thousands of modules a year [and] we’re starting to think even larger [than 1 meter],” he said.
He noted that Australia is now trying to restore more than a hundred square kilometers of the Great Barrier Reef. “Our workable scale should be 1 square km. Two thousand modules a year over five years … Yes, it is possible. It’s limited by resources, but we’re working our way up and we’re showing success at the scales we’re working at,” he said.
“Thank you Doctor… You just made my Friday,” Yoon replied.
— Teresa Dawson