A new program that would designate the heart of Hawaii as a heritage area is drawing fire from some who live and work within its proposed borders.

The proposed Hawaii Capital National Heritage Area would cover a 16-square-mile swath of land stretching from Kalihi Street to Punahou Street, from the ocean to the pali: the boundaries of the ancient ahupuaa of Honolulu and Kapalama.1

It would be the first of its kind in the state — and one of the first in the Western U.S. — if a bill currently stuck in a U.S. congressional committee is passed. The federal designation would preserve the colorful history of the area and would provide grant funding for various arts, culture and heritage programs in need of help, proponents say.

Why would anyone object to such a thing?

It turns out that some residents and business owners who make their living or make their homes in the impacted area — which includes Chinatown, Downtown, Kakaako, Kalihi, Liliha, Makiki, Nuuanu, Palama, Pauoa and Tantalus — are concerned that the legislation authorizing the designation could create more problems than it solves.

A loose group of opponents have collected their concerns in one place: http://realhawaiicapitalnationalheritageareainfo.com/. The site, launched in May 2010, refutes much of the work of the Hawaii Capital Cultural Coalition, a group established in 2003. The Sustainability/Feasibility Study — a 41-megabyte PDF document — is a key part of the push for the Hawaii Capital National Heritage Area.

  1. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the heritage area measured 1,500 acres — a number that represents the size of the Hawaii Capital Cultural District, a small piece of the proposal located in downtown. The actual size of the heritage area is 16.192 square miles — or more than 10,000 acres. The story also incorrectly said the boundaries were defined by the ahupuaa of Honolulu. The heritage area also encompasses the ahupuaa of Kapalama.

The opposition website says a management plan approved in conjunction with the designation could add more steps to an already onerous permitting process, lead to more design or zoning restrictions and even property condemnation. Opponents worry neighborhood board voices would be drowned out by the government-backed nonprofit charged with managing the heritage area.

“Every time I look, I only find propaganda, but not the residential voice, not what’s really happening,” said Tamar deFries, a Native Hawaiian homestead resident in the Papakolea neighborhood. She responded to an e-mail sent to the site — there are no names or phone numbers listed — but said she did not build it.1

“There is a large constituency of opposition out there. It’s not an organized effort at all. What it is is people taking the time to read the legislation and joining together in opposition,” she said. Preserving the heritage area may sound great in theory, “but in application is when a lot of problems start occurring.”

The Hawaii Capital Cultural Coalition says the designation isn’t much more than a grant program to bring in federal resources to programs that would otherwise be ignored. The designation doesn’t make Honolulu a national park or national landmark — there are no special protections provided to the physical place, and no additional land use restrictions.

“There’s a lot of speculation because a lot of people here aren’t familiar with it,” said Trisha Kehaulani Watson, president of Honua Consulting and spokeswoman for the partnership that features nearly 100 local organizations.

“We know that these programs work, but people don’t know, and the unfamiliar leaves people anxious,” Watson said. “We’re so removed from a lot of these National Heritage Areas that there’s a lot of anxiety about what this would mean. And it’s unfounded.”

Hawaii is just one of many potential additions to the National Heritage Area program, which began nearly 30 years ago and is managed by the U.S. Department of the Interior‘s National Park Service. There are currently 49 heritage areas [doc] — each with its own unique legislation and local coordinating nonprofit.

View National Heritage Areas in a larger map

The heritage areas receive, on average, about $150,000 in federal funding each year, though those funds could face cuts given the recession. After 15 years, the hope is that a nonprofit organization that worked to secure the designation is able to stand on its own two feet and manage the area independently.

Yuma’s ‘Incredible Success Story’

Surprisingly, both proponents and opponents of the Hawaii designation point to the same heritage area — Yuma Crossing in Arizona — as an example of the good and bad that could happen here.

A decade ago, the Yuma County Farm Bureau and the Quechan Indian Tribe raised concerns similar to deFries’. They said the federal designation would infringe on private property rights and that the nonprofit running the heritage area was unelected and unaccountable to the public.

“Just because there are 50 heritage areas that work doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be concerned about the one in your backyard,” said Harold Maxwell, who vociferously opposed the designation when he served as the board president for the farm bureau in the early 2000s.

Objections from the agricultural community forced program organizers to shave the 22-square-mile proposal down to just four square miles encompassing downtown Yuma and the levee system of the nearby Colorado River. Maxwell says he testified before a House subcommittee on the matter and still has a document commemorating the victory framed in his office at Booth Machinery, Inc.

The 3,800-member Quechan Indian Tribe was worried it might lose control of the 50,000-acre Fort Yuma Reservation and had concerns about Colorado River water allocations, said Brian Golding Sr., the director of economic development for and a member of the tribe.

Now, Golding is on the board of directors for the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area. He says the program has been “a true collaboration of what’s going to happen on these lands, and the tribe is involved every step of the way.”

“The tribe looked at this as an opportunity to restore its traditional connection the river and gain access in places where it couldn’t really anymore because the thick growth of non-native species, the safety risks of an area that had been taken over by hobo camps, an area that had become a dumping ground,” Golding said.

“Through the partnership and the collaboration, we’ve been able to reclaim areas along the river and re-establish that connection. We’ve been able to do it in a way where native plants and trees that we’ve depended on for cultural production purposes are being re-established and flourishing,” he said. “We created a renewable source and ready supply of these materials that are necessary for cultural productive practices. And that’s cool.”

The National Park Service official who oversees the Yuma Crossing National Heritage Area said part of the local organization’s job is to make sure that everybody in the community understands what heritage areas are, and what they’re not.

“All the legislation contains provisions to safeguard private property, so there’s no possibility of that occurring, so it’s just unfounded fears,” said Greg Kendrick, who is based in Denver and is National Heritage Areas coordinator for the intermountain region that contains Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. “The successful heritage areas, especially those in the west, are those that have a strong, deep grassroots foundation.”

Kendrick’s assertion that Yuma Crossing has been an “incredible success story” was backed up by the organization’s Mid-Point Progress Report [pdf], published eight years into the 15-year life of the heritage area. Even Maxwell, the farm bureau leader that once fought the designation, agreed that the program has yielded positive results.

“I’m not going to tell you they’re all bad and all evil and run by evil people, because that’s not true,” Maxwell said, noting that the program has done a “terrific job” restoring habitat along the river and revitalizing downtown with new money.

“But there are some very legitimate concerns,” he said. “People need to understand the challenge of dealing with local people and local governments. You’ve got to get everyone before it gets passed to sign off and say we are not going to use this for determining property rights, property valuations. That needs to be handled up front.”

Hawaii’s Unanswered Questions

The National Park Service official who would oversee the program should it expand to Hawaii sees the lessons learned from Yuma.

“Heritage areas can be successful and sustainable if they’re based on the partnership efforts of the people who live and work in the region,” said Linda Stonier, who is based in Oakland and is the National Heritage Areas co-coordinator for the pacific west region that includes California, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Hawaii and Nevada.

“There has been opposition to the designation in the other heritage areas. I think that it’s because of the federal designation,” Stonier said. “The involvement of the federal government, however minimal, seems to raise concerns among local people that they’re going to lose their autonomy, their decision-making ability over their own resources.”

Stonier said most bills have language that specifically prohibits the heritage areas from pre-empting local land-use authorities. Watson, the Hawaii Capital Cultural Coalition spokeswoman, pointed to Section 8 of Senate Bill 359, which says nothing in the act “abridges the rights of any owner of public or private property.”

The nonprofit will have “absolutely zero police powers,” Watson said. “There is no impact on city, state or federal law. It’s just money for programs. It’s just trying to supplement to existing organizations resources that they don’t have right now.”

Coalition board member Rob Saarnio, who lived in National Heritage Areas in Massachusetts and Michigan before moving to Hawaii, said a U.S. General Accounting Office report published in 2004 supports the claim.

The report [pdf], titled “A More Systematic Process for Establishing National Heritage Areas and Actions to Improve Their Accountability Are Needed,” criticized some aspects of the heritage area program. “Nevertheless,” the report states, “heritage area officials, Park Service headquarters and regional staff, and representatives of national property rights groups that we contacted were unable to provide us with any examples of a heritage area directly affecting — positively or negatively — private property values or use.”

Despite the legislation and the report, local opponents are still uncomfortable. DeFries says the process has lacked transparency and accountability and has not properly consulted with members of the community. “Residential concerns are just totally disregarded,” she said.

Some have asked to be exempted from the designation. In October 2009, The Chinatown Improvement District sent a withdrawal request [pdf] to Sens. Daniel K. Inouye and Daniel Akaka, cosponsors of the bill. The same month, a pair of letters [pdf] were sent from the Legislature to Hawaii Capital Cultural Coalition Project Director Mona Abadir asking that the Papakolea and Tantalus communities and the Woodlands at Nuuanu be deleted as well.

Watson says she is aware that there have been concerns raised by the community, and has coordinated outreach efforts to assuage them.

“You can only have so many town hall meetings about these things,” she said. “We have always maintained that we’re a wide open book, and we’re happy to answer questions.”

In January 2009, Senate Bill 359 was referred to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, congressional records show. No hearings have been scheduled since. The offices of Inouye and Akaka were unable to provide updates.

DISCUSSION: Do you think Honolulu could benefit from a National Heritage Area designation? Join the conversation about historic preservation.

  1. Clarification (July 30): Chinatown business owner Lee Stack confirmed to Civil Beat that she forwarded to deFries the e-mail Civil Beat originally sent to http://realhawaiicapitalnationalheritageareainfo.com/.

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