It’s official — Hawaii is paying Turtle Bay Resort millions of dollars not to develop 665 acres of land on the North Shore of Oahu.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie held a bill signing ceremony Monday at the resort to celebrate the deal, which comes after more than a decade of lawsuits contesting the hotel’s expansion plans.

“It’s more than historic,” Abercrombie said, adding that his heart was pumping with the thrill of being there.

The state is paying $40 million for the conservation easement, a legal agreement by which the land will be protected from development no matter who owns it. The City & County of Honolulu is contributing $5 million, and the Trust for Public Land is kicking in another $3.5 million.

The resort’s current owner, Replay Resorts, will retain ownership of the land, which includes oceanfront access, wetlands, parks, trails and a golf course with limited public access. But the company won’t be able to build the hundreds of homes it had originally planned.

The deal comes after years of controversy and political debate over the future of the area, and was only achieved after months of negotiations among representatives of the resort, state, city, Trust for Public Land, North Shore Community Land Trust and others.

While the ceremony celebrated the agreement, the occasion also had an undercurrent of political campaigning in an election year.

Abercrombie, who is running for re-election, called the agreement “wonderful,” “fabulous” and “marvelous,” saying the deal will “ensure that the country stays country” and that it sets the standard for other land negotiations throughout the state.

While he thanked various people who participated in the negotiations, the governor particularly praised Sen. Clayton Hee, the senator from the North Shore who is running against Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui this year.

“His steadfastness is a mark of the kind of character that he has displayed in his legislative life throughout his career,” Abercrombie said of Hee.

Hee spoke right after Abercrombie, saying he “couldn’t be more pleased” to play a part in the Turtle Bay negotiations. He added that the agreement was one of several major accomplishments this past year that he played key roles in, including a bill to legalize same-sex marriage and another to raise the minimum wage.

Abercrombie’s speech also included a dig at a Democratic primary opponent, Sen. David Ige, who runs the Senate money committee.

“The financing got a little kapakahi in the end, but we managed to work that out,” the governor said, using a Hawaiian word that roughly translates into ‘messy.’

Meanwhile, Ige seized the opportunity to try to gain points with voters.

The lawmaker issued a press release emphasizing that while Abercrombie requested $40 million in general obligation bonds for the deal, Ige instead proposed refinancing Hawaii Convention Center bonds to avoid taking money away from other public services.

If the Legislature had fulfilled Abercrombie’s original request, projects such as public school classrooms and air-conditioning and public hospital improvements would have suffered, Ige said. Other projects that could have lost funding included the Kona courthouse, the UH Hilo School of Pharmacy and the Waimea Middle School science and technology center.

“I am happy that my plan was approved by the Legislature and that we were able to preserve Turtle Bay lands forever,” Ige said in a statement. “A good leader needs to be creative, innovative and fair to come up with solutions that balance the will of the people with fiscal responsibility. Without that balance, everyone loses.”

But Ige’s proposal to pay for the conservation easement didn’t sail smoothly during the session. Legislators waited until the last minute to approve the deal in conference committee, and his fellow lawmakers criticized the process, suggesting it may not have been constitutional because the final version of the bill didn’t receive public input and lawmakers had gutted and replaced the contents of an unrelated measure.

Although the bill passed, the rocky process still hasn’t been forgotten. In a Civil Beat column published Sunday, Tom Yamachika from the Tax Foundation of Hawaii suggested that the Legislature should have given the public more time to consider the details of the proposal.

“If there were more time to consider the issues, and if there were more allowance for input by the public and others, perhaps a better solution could have been reached to fund the same deal,” he wrote.

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com and on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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