Hawaii’s Public Land Development Corporation is facing an increasingly hostile political landscape as it works to partner with private companies to develop state lands.

Hawaii lawmakers are calling for it to be repealed, or its powers sharply curtailed. Environmental groups are growing increasingly hostile to the agency, which acts as a development arm of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources. And hundreds of members of the public have called for it to be abolished these past couple of weeks during a series of meetings to hear comments on its proposed rules.

But public outcry or not, the PLDC has to move forward.

“I have a state law to implement and until I have another state law we are going to move forward in trying to finish the rules and assess any projects,” said William Aila, chair of DLNR and a PLDC board member. “I would encourage the public to wait and see. It hasn’t done anything yet to deserve criticism.”

The PLDC has yet to execute a single project, but lawmakers are already gearing up for a fight this upcoming legislative session, which begins in January.

Reps. Cynthia Thielen and Jessica Wooley both told Civil Beat this week that they will propose bills targeting the PLDC.

“I think that there are so many problems with the law that I think there is no question that we have to go back and either make changes or repeal it,” said Wooley. “It’s a mess.”

Thielen said that she would be proposing a bill to abolish the PLDC. She said that the agency shouldn’t move forward on any projects until next year’s legislative session is over, otherwise it could be a waste of taxpayers’ money.

“The PLDC should certainly be on notice that there is a significant movement to repeal it, so should not rush to the drawing board to move ahead with projects on state lands,” she said.

Her daughter, state Senate candidate Laura Thielen, who is the former head of DLNR, has also vowed to fight to repeal the law if elected.

Act 55, which created the PLDC last year, has been criticized as being too vague, while imparting broad powers to the corporation. PLDC staff are charged with enlisting private companies to assist in developing state lands. Projects can range from improving park facilities or boat harbors, to building hotels and parking lots.

PLDC staff are battling criticism that the agency’s rules don’t do enough to protect the environment or Hawaii’s cultural resources. And a growing chorus of Native Hawaiian leaders and supporters of the sovereignty movement are raising alarm about the power of the corporation to develop ceded lands that are supposed to be held in trust for Native Hawaiians.

Lloyd Haraguchi, said that the public had received a lot of misinformation about the PLDC, which the staff was working to combat. He said that they would continue their work despite protests.

“Things will continue to move forward, and that’s what we are trying to do right now,” he said. “Whatever happens in the future, nobody has control over that.”

Round 2 For the Public?

Moving ahead could mean another bruising round of public meetings on draft rules to govern the corporation.

PLDC staff traveled throughout the islands last month taking public comments on the rules, though much of the testimony centered on abolishing the PLDC altogether.

After reviewing and responding to comments, PLDC staff will determine whether or not to amend the rules. If they are changed substantially, it will mean another round of public hearings.

Sen. Mike Gabbard, chair of the Senate’s Energy and Environment Committee, said that he expected there to be a second round. He said that he had supported Act 55 because of its ability to help facilitate geothermal development on the Big Island, but that there were concerns with the PLDC that needed to be addressed.

“If the rules don’t go far enough, I’m very much in favor or amending Act 55,” he said.

The PLDC probably won’t start on any projects until well into the legislative session if there is another public comment period.

Kalbert Young, chair of the PLDC’s board and director of the Hawaii Department of Budget and Finance, said that if the rules have to go back out for public comment then it’s unlikely that they will be in place by the end of the year. The rules also must be approved by both the board and Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Projects on Hold

While Haraguchi said that the PLDC would continue to move forward, despite opposition, the corporation is slowing down when it comes to specific projects.

In July, Haraguchi announced that he was pursuing four projects even though the rules hadn’t been finalized yet. At that time, he said that the law didn’t require that the PLDC have rules. In addition to developing agricultural lands in the Ewa plain, Haraguchi said that the PLDC was looking at doing capital improvements at Olomana Gulf Course and extending a land permit for a bee farmer on the Big Island by hundreds of acres.

The move sparked criticism from groups such as the Hawaii Sierra Club and Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Now, Haraguchi says they will hold-off on the projects.

“We listened, and we said, ok, we’re going to complete the rules first before looking at any projects,” he said.

PLDC Could Have Shelter

Public opposition to the PLDC is growing — there’s even a petition to abolish it. But it could prove difficult for opponents to get anything passed in the Legislature.

Last year, there were about a dozen bills proposed that repealed or curtailed the powers of the PLDC, none of which went anywhere. Lawmakers say this was in part because the bills faced the Senate Committee on Water, Land and Housing, which is chaired by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz. He sponsored the bill that created the PLDC.

Thielen said that she expected him to be an obstacle again this year.

But public pressure to kill the PLDC will be much more intense.

“I think people are much more aware, and I think there is going to be a big movement to repeal the PLDC,” Thielen said.

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