The fledgling movement to abolish the Public Land Development Corporation caught fire Wednesday night during a public meeting in Honolulu about the draft rules to regulate the government agency charged with partnering with private companies to develop state lands.

The PLDC has yet to execute a single project, but some of the state’s most well-known environmental and Native Hawaiian leaders are already calling for its repeal.

The small meeting room in the Kalanimoku building in downtown Honolulu was packed Wednesday night as about 150 people showed up for what stretched into a marathon four and a half hour hearing. Dozens congregated outside because they couldn’t fit inside. Police officers from DNLR stood watch to make sure the group didn’t get out of control.

Eric Gill, treasurer of Unite Here, Local 5, which represents hotel workers, summed up what the crowd was feeling: “It’s not about the rules, it’s about the legislation itself.”

“This PLDC issue brought the union and environmentalists together because we all fear that the government is giving too much power and too much influence to banks and developers and not us,” he said.

A couple dozen Local 5 members in red shirts toted signs that read, “Public Land, Public Input. Don’t sell off our aina.”

The PLDC was created by legislation sponsored by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, and was signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2011 as Act 55. The corporation acts as a development arm of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Also in attendance Wednesday was Laura Thielen, former chair of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources and current state Senate candidate, who made a surprise appearance at the hearing.

While the law has been promoted as a way to shore up the ailing budget of DLNR so that the department can better fulfill its conservation mission, Thielen argued that this was not the case.

“As a former chair of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, I can tell you unequivocally the PLDC is taking revenue from DLNR and will continue to do so,” she said.

Thielen noted that developers will derive a 15 percent cut of revenues from projects in addition to administrative expenses. She said that the corporation runs directly counter to DLNR’s mission to protect public lands and opened “the door for sweetheart deals that may generate revenue, but not for DLNR.”

Thielen’s comments were met by thunderous cheers. She vowed to work in the Legislature to repeal the PLDC.

During this past legislative session, a dozen bills were introduced aiming to restrict the powers of the PLDC, including a couple that sought to repeal it. But all of them died, in part because they had to go through Dela Cruz, the corporation’s creator and chair of the Senate Committee on Water, Land and Housing.

A television monitor set up outside of the room broadcast the hearing with the help of Olelo, Oahu’s public access station. Controversy erupted last week because the meeting hadn’t been scheduled in a room that could accommodate the large crowd that was anticipated.

Lloyd Haraguchi, the PLDC’s executive director, Randal Ikeda, its program officer, and William Aila Jr. a board member of the PLDC and chair of DLNR sat quietly as one person after the other submitted testimony opposing the corporation.

The testimony grew emotional through the evening. Haraguchi tried to keep comments limited to suggestions on how the PLDC might amend the rules, but concerns centered more on the PLDC itself.

Much of the controversy has centered around the PLDC’s ability to bypass environmental controls. While the agency is subject to Chapter 343, the environmental review process, David Kimo Frankel, an attorney with the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation, scoffed at the notion that this was sufficient. He rattled off a list of other state and county laws and ordinances that protect the environment from which the corporation is exempt.

He said that there was nothing in the draft rules that compensated for these protections and that the PLDC had “unfettered discretion to make decisions.”

The hearing also grew heated around the state’s use of ceded lands, which are supposed to be held in trust for Native Hawaiians.

“I’m here tonight to basically, one, put you on notice again that we are still under occupation, illegal occupation. Therefore, you have no authority over our lands and over us as Hawaiians,” said Andre Perez, who was speaking for Hawaiians United for Liberation and Independence.

Robert Harris, executive director of the Hawaii Sierra Club, was one of the few to actually testify on the rules. He said that the PLDC’s rules lacked sufficient environmental controls and that being subject to Chapter 343 was not enough.

Out of about 70 people that testified, there were a few that spoke in favor of the PLDC, including representatives of the General Contractors Association and the Land Use Research Foundation, a trade group for developers.

“We see there are a lot of projects in harbors, schools, even schools that are closed down in communities. There’s potential for really good projects to occur,” said Samuel Wong of the General Contractors Association.

Also speaking up for the PLDC was Mililani Trask, a well-known Native Hawaiian activist who is working with a local company called Innovations Development Group to develop geothermal on the Big Island. She once led protests against geothermal development in the 1980s and 1990s, even getting arrested. But she now supports the cause. Trask has expressed interest in using the PLDC to help facilitate projects and said that with the right rules the corporation could be used to the benefit of Hawaii.

“The PLDC has some problems and I’m about fixing it so that we can move forward,” she said. “I’m no longer going to support or be silent about the state practice of allowing private sector and foreign companies to develop our resources. I’m ready to work with the PLDC and I’m tired of environmentalists and clappers. Where were you all when we got arrested? None of you came.”

Testimony lasted for more than four hours with the crowd slowly dwindling down to about 20 people by 10:30 p.m., when the hearing ended. This was the fourth meeting of the PLDC in the past week and half. Meetings on the Big Island and Maui were equally contentious, with some testifiers cursing at the PLDC staff. Agency officials head to Kauai on Friday.


Andre Perez, of Hawaiians United for Liberation and Independence, testifies against the PLDC:

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