The new agency tasked with developing state lands is hoping to move forward on its first projects — even though it hasn’t finalized rules that govern its operations and establish the criteria by which projects are chosen.

And this isn’t going over well with leaders of environmental groups, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and members of the public who showed up Wednesday for the Public Land Development Corporation‘s monthly board meeting.

“I do think that at this stage there are not sufficient protections to ensure the projects are culturally sensitive,” said Jocelyn Doane, of OHA’s public policy program.

The proposed projects include developing lands currently being farmed in the Ewa Plain on Oahu, extending a land permit for a bee farmer by hundred of acres, and making capital improvements at Olomana Golf Course.

The PLDC, which acts as a private development arm of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, was created last year by legislation sponsored by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz. It has attracted criticism for its broad powers that potentially allow thousands of acres of state lands to be developed by private companies. The language of the law provides examples of projects ranging from hotels to parking lots.

PLDC supporters have said that the corporation will not allow unbridled development. But rather it enables the state to shore up decaying infrastructure, improve park facilities, encourage responsible development and conservation projects. The development projects would also help bring in extra revenue to the cash-strapped DLNR, which is struggling to carry out its responsibilities to protect Hawaii’s natural resources, such as critical watershed areas.

Early on, the corporation’s board touted the rules as a mechanism, in part, to make sure that any development moved forward in environmentally and culturally sensitive ways.

Robert Harris, executive director of the Sierra Club, testified that it was unclear how the Board of Land and Natural Resources could assess whether or not to allow the transfer of development rights for these projects if the board hadn’t yet agreed on criteria by which projects should be judged. He added that the criteria proposed in the draft rules should be more specific.

“The problem is it just becomes arbitrary — we just want this project, or we just want that project,” he said.

The PLDC’s executive director, Lloyd Haraguchi, told Civil Beat that there was nothing in the statute requiring that the corporation establish rules.

“I’ve never said that we would never move forward because the rules weren’t completed yet,” he told Civil Beat. “In the spirit of doing our objective, we continue along these lines. We know what the rules look like and the environmental concerns.”

The corporation has come up with draft rules and will be holding public meetings throughout the islands to discuss them in August.

Haraguchi, who is under pressure from Dela Cruz to move forward more quickly, said that the projects chosen seemed to be some of the most benign.

“I think that these are the ones in the initial go around that I thought could be done without too much controversy,” he said.

But judging from Tuesday’s meeting, this is not the case for at least one of the proposed projects: Developing lands currently being farmed by Aloun Farms and Larry Jefts, owners of two of the largest farm operations on Oahu.

The lands hug D.R. Horton’s controversial 12,000-home Hoopili development, which was recently approved by the state Land Use Commission. The project will take prime farmland currently under cultivation. Opponents of the project, including the Sierra Club, Sen. Clayton Hee and Friends of Makakilo are challenging the decision in court.

Plans to transfer the development rights of the state lands, which total about 140 acres, brought out Kioni Dudley, president of Friends of Makakilo. Dudley has been fighting the development for the past few years and has raised the alarm about what the loss of land will have on Hawaii’s food security. Hawaii imports the vast majority of its food.

“I’m asking you to back off,” said Dudley. “Don’t take these lands now and cover them over with development. How are people going to survive?”

The PLDC has met with production company Relativity Media and Actus Lend Lease about possibly developing projects on the lands. But plans are in a preliminary stage, said Haraguchi.

He said Actus Lend Lease is interested in building workforce housing and Relativity Media is interested in putting up a sound stage and studio space for post-production work.

The PLDC was set up in part to help fund DLNR, according to its statute, but it’s too early to tell how much revenue the projects would bring in for DLNR through leases.

Larry Jefts currently rents about 100 acres for $27,000 a year, or $2,250 a month, according to Haraguchi. He said Alec and Mike Sou, owners of Aloun Farms don’t pay any rent to DLNR for the 40 acres of land it leases. Haraguchi, said he didn’t know why the Sou brothers don’t pay rent. A call to William Aila, the chairman of DLNR was not immediately returned.

Honeybee Sanctuary or Monopoly?

Another of the PLDC’s proposed projects involves Richard Spiegel, a beekeeper on the Big Island. He wants his rights to the Puako Forest expanded from nine acres to about 550 acres to protect his bee business.

He currently rents the nine acres from DLNR for about $55 a month.

Spiegel makes award-winning premium honey from the nectar of the kiawe flower that can be found on the shelves of exclusive establishments such as Dean & Deluca and Zabar’s in New York. He says he employs a staff of seven and brings in several hundred thousand dollars in revenue a year.

“As a business person, he is concerned that the forest will be used for another use and wants to protect his interests,” said Haraguchi.

By expanding the permit to cover the full forest, which is populated by kiawe trees, no other beekeeper will be able to use the area, said Spiegel. Competition in the forest would be a disaster for not only his business, but potentially the ecosystem, he said.

“It wouldn’t be fun,” said Spiegel of sharing the forest with another beekeeper. “It wouldn’t be right. I’m the most qualified — I’ve been doing it for 35 years.”

Spiegel told the PLDC board that three pathogens had devastated the Hawaii bee population in recent years, which was having a terrible effect on local produce because the bees pollinate crops.

Expanding his control over the forest would not only protect the dwindling bee population, Spiegel said, but also the forest from being used for other development purposes.

“What I’m asking the PLDC to do is acknowledge these lands as a honeybee sanctuary and not have anything else impinge upon it,” he said.

Olomana Golf Course

Haraguchi is also hoping to transfer development rights from DLNR to the corporation in order to do capital improvements at Olomana Golf Course.

The current lease for the 13,000-acre property ends in 20 years and Hawaii Golf Properties, which pays DLNR $154,000 a year in rent, is interested in investing in improvements for its courses, said Haraguchi. But the company needs a longer lease in order to recoup its investment.

He did not have specific details about what improvements might be in store for the course. He said there were also discussions about increasing the restrictions on the golf course’s pricing, which is currently about half of market rates.

For now, the projects will have to wait. As the meeting approached three hours, the PLDC board deferred a vote on whether to allow Haraguchi to approach the Board of Land and Natural Resources about transferring the rights to develop the lands.

“Well there’s still 88 years to go in this century,” said Kalbert Young, chair of the PLDC and director of the Department of Budget and Finance, of the drawn out process for getting the corporation moving. “Which is how long it takes the state to do a project.”

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