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County Considers Ka’ehu Acquisition, Last Open Space in Paukukalo

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   March 12th, 2012 · No Disqus Comments ·
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Sign-wavers seeking cultural protection of a 64-acre parcel in Paukukalo, known as the Ka'ehu wetlands, showed up at the foreclosure auction of the property in June 2011, in the hopes of discouraging any potential bids from prospective developers. Photo by Wendy Osher.

By Wendy Osher

The proposed acquisition of 63.7 acres of coastal wetlands in Paukukalo resurfaces again before the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee this week.

The land, known as Ka’ehu, is the last open space between Waiehu and Waihee. It is considered a sacred place that is regularly used by native Hawaiian practitioners, as well as for residential recreational purposes.

The county is considering the acquisition of the property for an estimated $996,000. Maui Judge Shackley Raffetto was scheduled to review the proposed purchase and sale agreement which was moved from February 29 to March 16, 2012.

Right now, the Trust for Public Land is the owner, subject to the final filing of the judgment by the court, which should happen any day now.

“The absolute worse case scenario that I could think of is that the county for whatever reason is no longer interested in supporting the protection through acquisition,” said Laura H. E. Ka’akua, Native Lands Field Representative at the Trust for Public Land.

“We are not in the business of stewarding property. We are in the business of protecting it through acquisition. So the absolute worse case scenario is that we would have to sell the property so that basically our nonprofit organization does not go belly up and absorb so much cost that we can’t function to preserve other conservation lands,” she said.

“We all would agree this piece of land is very important to our community,” said Budget and Finance Committee Chair Joe Pontanilla.

“Anything we do, we do with due diligence; and it’s public money that we’re spending,” said Pontanilla. “When you talk about commitment, we made that commitment way back in May that we were going to go forward to purchase this thing. That commitment still stands,” he said.

The parcel is considered the last piece of open space between the Waiehu Golf Course and the harbor. “There’s another piece that goes north towards Kahakuloa, which is I understand probably going to be pursued,” said Pontanilla during the last budget meeting.

“Hopefully one day, we get the whole north coastline… as open space conservation. I really believe in saving open space and conservation land. For me a commitment is a commitment, and you guys know that,” he said.

Fellow council member Michael Victorino also expressed a commitment to the purchase saying, “It’s time to start looking at making decisions… Here’s an opportunity. I hope our members will look at this favorably when it’s all said and done.”

History of County Moves Toward Acquisition

Another land user, the Neighborhood Place of Wailuku had been negotiating with the landowner for permission to use 8 acres of the property for family strengthening programs several years ago.

In 2007, The NPW and community members approached the Trust for Public Land to see what could be done to protect the land from development.

The Trust for Public Land is a national non-profit land trust organization that had previously worked with the county to protect Mu’ole’a Point in East Maui in 2005.

After conducting research and compiling archaeological surveys, and environmental assessments, “We found that protection of the property was a priority project for the Paukukalo Hawaiian Homestead Community Association, and that they, with their leadership at that time, were looking at developing communities rather than focusing just on the homebuilding part of it,” said Laura H. E. Ka’akua, Native Lands Field Representative at the Trust for Public Land during testimony before the Council’s Budget and Finance Committee.

“They were willing to take title to the property as a resource to hold in protection for their homestead community there. With the intent that DHHL would hold the property, we began a series of funding applications,” said Ka’akua who noted the property at the time was listed for $5 million.

Also in 2009, a foreclosure lawsuit was filed, and TPL continued to negotiate with the landowner, the debtor and the bank (or the creditor), and to organize the community’s users.

In 2011, the TPL went before the Maui Council, requesting $450,000 in county open space matching funds, with a proposal that DHHL be the owner of the property.

At the time, TPL received feedback that the county may be willing to fund the full purchase price and take title rather than the DHHL. “So as a result, we amended our application, and submitted an application for $2 million which was the fair market value,” said Ka’akua.

The council subsequently took the item to first reading and agreed to spend upwards of $1.7 million for the property. When the item went up for bid in a foreclosure auction in June 2011, a representative from Chevy Chase Bank offered the $820,163.70 winning – and only – bid on behalf of the lender/creditor.

The Trust for Public Land was able to acquire it for $861,000 when the bidding was reopened.

County Kuleana if Property is Acquired

As committee members consider acquisition of the property, questions have surfaced over the county’s ability to manage the property in perpetuity.

“There are ways that the restoration of the place will enable large funding to come from the government, from the national funders, that allows also for some continued maintenance,” said Hōkūlani Holt, President Kauahea Inc., a non-profit organization that supports Hawaiian arts, culture and spiritual practices.

In addition to income from educational programs, Holt said, Kauahea intends to begin an endowment campaign to provide ongoing financial support for the property.

“It is an overall plan to continue having partnerships within our community to bring the area to its best use,” said Holt. “One organization, I believe, cannot do that to the benefit of the community. The community needs to have input,” she said.

***Video is file footage from the June 2011 foreclosure auction.

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