A new and controversial agency tasked with developing state lands through public-private partnerships will not be grinding to a halt as some state officials had cautioned.
The Public Land Development Corporation has all the powers it needs to develop state lands in concert with private developers, despite concerns raised earlier this month by officials from the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The attorney general’s office had also questioned the PLDC’s authority and feared potential lawsuits if the process were to proceed.
Those officials said ambiguity in the law establishing the PLDC could mean the state did not have the legal authority to transfer all the necessary land rights to the corporation.
At a hearing recently, DLNR officials briefed legislators on the status of the corporation and said that the law may need to be amended this legislative session.
That incensed Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz who had sponsored the legislation and is a strong supporter of the PLDC. He began meeting privately with the governor’s staff and other top officials.
And last week, the attorney general’s office sent a memo to Dela Cruz clarifying the PLDC’s powers, and stating — unequivocally — that the law was fine and no amendments would be needed.
The memo, signed by Deputy Attorney General Linda Chow, said there was nothing about the law that would deny or stall lands from being transferred from DLNR to the corporation for development.
That’s different than what Chow told Civil Beat earlier this month when she said that ambiguities in the law could lead to litigation. Chow is on vacation and could not be reached for comment Monday.
Dela Cruz said he met privately with Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s chief of staff, Bruce Coppa, and held a meeting with the attorney general’s office and Guy Kaulukukui, deputy director of DLNR, to resolve the dispute.
Earlier this month, officials said that the law needed to be amended this legislative session. Morris Atta, a special projects coordinator at DLNR who is tasked with drafting rules for the corporation, told Civil Beat that under the law as currently written, private companies could hold the development rights to a parcel of land but not be able to access it because the state had no authority to transfer control of the underlying land.
Kaulukukui told Civil Beat by email that the corporation did not need the amendments that he had thought it did.
The PLDC is already controversial because environmental and labor groups worry that it has too broad of powers, allowing it to overstep state statutes, county zoning ordinances, construction standards and permitting requirements. Most state lands are also ceded lands that are supposed to be held in trust for Native Hawaiians.
Dela Cruz defends the law saying it addresses a critical need to improve dilapidated state facilities, such as parks and boat harbors. The majority of state lands are managed by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources – revenue from their development is intended to help prop up DLNR’s budget and help it better fulfill its conservation mission.
“I think we already have too much on the books in regard to being so anti-business to the point of not protecting the environment as much as we need to,” said Dela Cruz.
One of the areas being looked at is Lake Wilson, known for its pollution. Dela Cruz said that the lake could host an eco-lodge that would generate money for clean up.
But, he said, the PLDC wasn’t going to be the panacea for all of Hawaii’s budget and environmental problems.
“Is it easy? Hell no, it’s not easy,” said Dela Cruz. “That’s why we need everyone constructive at the table.”