It was the calm after the storm.

The board of the Public Land Development Corporation met for the first time Thursday since a series of heated public meetings throughout the islands brought out nearly 700 protestors. The overriding message: Abolish the PLDC.

Gone were the couple hundred critics that spilled out of the small boardroom in the Kalanimoku building in downtown Honolulu last month, toting anti-PLDC signs and making passionate speeches about how the PLDC needed to be stopped.

Instead, a handful of board members and the PLDC’s three employees convened to review minutes of prior meetings, discuss a proposed strategic plan and get briefed on the public meetings that were held to hear comments on draft rules. About 30 people from the public were in attendance. The air was subdued.

The Strategic Plan

Topping the agenda of PLDC staff and the agency’s supporters is turning around public opinion.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie and the law’s sponsors, Sen. Malama Solomon and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz have mounted a vigorous defense of the PLDC in recent weeks, decrying a “campaign of misinformation.” Abercrombie dismissed critics, calling them the “usual suspects” and characterizing their concerns as overblown.

And to help quell the public uproar, they’ve proposed a strategic plan for the PLDC in order to clarify its “vision, mission, goals and values” that puts public benefits as the top priority, according to a statement released by Solomon earlier this week.

The PLDC, enacted into law last year, acts as a development arm of the Department of Land and Natural Resources by facilitating partnerships with private companies to develop and improve public lands. Project revenues are intended to bolster DLNR’s budget and help the department fund conservation initiatives, such as protecting the state’s critical watersheds.

But opponents have criticized the PLDC for lacking adequate protections for environmental and cultural resources. The law’s language is broad when it comes to the types of projects that can be developed on state lands and the agency is exempt from county land use and zoning laws.

The strategic plan is aimed at appeasing these concerns.

Much of it clarifies what is already in the law, stressing that the PLDC must comply with the Chapter 343 environmental review process, the Historic Preservation law and Sunshine law.

The plan also says that the PLDC must comply with a landmark 2009 law that protects lands held in trust for Native Hawaiians. According to the law, ceded lands can’t be sold without a two-thirds vote by both Hawaii’s House and Senate.

Any parcel of land that the PLDC is seeking to develop must also be approved by the Board of Land and Natural Resources or the agency holding the title to the land.

What is new in the strategic plan is a guideline that says the PLDC will not develop agricultural lands that are eligible for designation as “important agricultural lands.” Counties are currently in the process of identifying fertile lands that are important to farming and can’t be reclassified for other uses without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

The board will further review the plan before voting on its approval.

The PLDC also has a proposed mission statement:

The mission of the Public Land Development Corporation is to create and facilitate partnerships between state and county agencies, departments, businesses, non-profits, and community groups to improve our communities, create jobs, and expand public benefit.

Rules Could Be Changed

PLDC staff are also reviewing all the public and written comments that were received on the draft rules for the corporation. Only about 10 percent of the comments pertained to the rules, according to PLDC executive director Lloyd Haraguchi.

“The public testimony was very emotional,” he said, referring in particular to testimony on Hawaiian sovereignty and ceded lands issues. “While important to address, it is not in our purview.”

The majority of the comments, which primarily focused on repealing the PLDC, will not be taken into account in a final report of the hearings — which were supposed to be about suggested rule changes.

If the PLDC does substantially alter the rules, then staff will go back out for another round of public comments.

Is It Enough?

But a strategic plan and revamped rules might not be enough to stave off growing opposition to the PLDC.

While the meeting was tame, critics from groups such as the Hawaii Sierra Club, Life of the Land and Dela Cruz’s Republican challenger for his Senate seat, Charles Aki, continued to raise concerns about the agency’s operations.

While the protestors were gone Thursday, their spirit was kept alive by Choon James, a member of the Ko’olauloa Sustainable Communities Planning Committee and a real estate broker.

“You have all gone through a lot of exciting public hearings throughout the islands. Gov. Neil Abercrombie has just come back from Kauai where he was booed, people expressed their expressions in not so kind ways and very straight forward and honest and open ways,” she said.

“So this is one of those cases that has captured the imagination of so many groups and so many people. And yet, we come to this meeting acting like nothing happened. (You’re) just going to plow on, going with the status quo, acting like nothing happened.”

The PLDC’s strategic plan:

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