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At dawn, as traffic jams snake through the Koolau mountain range, the Kawainui Marsh offers a soothing respite from the bustle of Honolulu.
Waterbirds splash about in the foreground of green mountains that jut up into the clouds. The playground for those birds is the state’s largest freshwater wetland, which spans more than 800 acres in Kailua on the east side of the island.
Some residents fear that could change if the state adopts a proposed land use plan that allows for the construction of several buildings and parking lots on the periphery of the marsh.
State officials have been working on revising the master plan for the area since last year. The last version was adopted in 1994.
Although the final draft of the master plan is not yet complete, some Kailua residents are alarmed after seeing plans at public hearings and neighborhood board meetings that show a visitors’ center and boardwalks that could transform the wetland into one more stop on Kailua’s tourism map.
“It’s misguided,” said Pauline MacNeil, a Kailua resident and member of the environmental organization LaniKailua Outdoor Circle. “We’re losing marshes worldwide, primarily to development. This is a treasure that we have to protect.”
Kawainui Marsh is an internationally recognized wetland that is critical to the recovery of four species of endangered birds. The marsh is also extremely significant in Native Hawaiian culture and is the subject of oral histories and legends.
While everyone agrees on the importance of the marsh, Kailua residents are divided over how the wetland should be managed.
Currently the state’s proposal includes two cultural centers, an educational visitors’ center, pathways, boardwalks and parking lots.
When Kailua’s neighborhood board first saw that proposal in September, it decided to take action. Board members were so alarmed they created a special committee to investigate how the plan was drawn up and with what level of community involvement.
Last week, the board recommended that the state bring together a group of community leaders to help revise the proposal.
David Smith, who manages Oahu’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife and who has been overseeing the marsh’s restoration, said a coalition of community groups called Hoolaulima has already been offering input.
But the group hasn’t been able to come to a decision about what should be done, reflecting the depth of community division.
Some residents, like the neighborhood board chairman Charles Prentiss, prefer a plan that eschews development in favor of preserving the marsh.
“Once you start having people traipsing all over it, then you’re only going to be degrading it,” Prentiss said.
But some people want more public access. Several members of the Native Hawaiian community denounced another plan for the marsh that is being pushed by Prentiss and others, arguing that his proposal “relies on a distorted view of Kailua history and doctored-up Hawaiian cultural concepts to advance a proposal whose effect will be to forestall rather than promote a thriving Hawaiian cultural presence at Kawainui.”
Many people interviewed by Civil Beat said controversy around the state’s proposals for the marsh is largely due to poor communication between community members and state officials.
A Nov. 30 community meeting focusing on the marsh drew more than 100 people who electronically submitted more than 200 questions. State Sen. Laura Thielen, who represents Kailua, said that many of those queries have not been addressed.
“The department needs to answer the questions that have been raised repeatedly in public meeting after public meeting that, to date, have not been answered,” Thielen said.
Smith defended the department’s transparency and community outreach, saying that four public meetings have been held this year. He said the community can expect answers to the questions from the Nov. 30 meeting by next month.
He blamed much of the criticism of the state’s plan on a misunderstanding about what it proposes and a general dislike of tourism. Kailua’s neighborhood board passed a resolution earlier this year that asked the state tourism authority to stop promoting the town as an alternative to Waikiki.
“I don’t think that we should be so afraid of tourism that we’re not willing to do anything at all,” Smith said.
He emphasized that the master plan is just a guideline for how the land will be used; it doesn’t guarantee that the development will happen.
Smith said he doubts that all the proposed structures will be built, explaining that the 1994 plan, which included a visitors’ center, wasn’t fully carried out. He also noted that his department’s budget is less than 1 percent of the state’s budget.
“We’re not going to build anything we can’t take care of,” he said.
Regardless of what the state’s master plan is called, community members say, they’re not happy with it.
“What do you want to call it a plan or a guideline, the bottom line is it doesn’t reflect all the voices of the community,” said Douglas Dudevoir, a member of Kailua’s neighborhood board.
In some ways, Smith noted, that’s true.
“Some of the people are getting stuff they want and some aren’t,” he said. “That’s because they’re diametrically opposed.”
But the process is far from over. The state is hoping to complete a draft environmental impact statement by next fall and Smith intends to continue to meet with community members to discuss the details of the proposal and see if they can find some middle ground.
That’s a sign of hope to residents like Pauline MacNeil from the LaniKailua Outdoor Circle.
“The plan that was presented to the public looks like it was already a done deal,” she said. “The state says this is open to revision? We are going to take the state at their word.”