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These would be interesting times for the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources even if there wasn’t a groundswell of opposition to the man nominated to lead it.
For instance, the DLNR may be asked to consider a proposed land swap to encourage more development along the route of Honolulu’s future rail system.
Gov. David Ige’s selection of Carleton Ching to head the DLNR has environmentalists howling that the longtime lobbyist for the development industry isn’t qualified to lead the state’s efforts to safeguard and steward its public land.
They also say there will be too many conflicts of interest for the man currently on leave from his job at Castle & Cooke, a major land developer.
In fact, Castle & Cooke would be the recipient of that land along the rail route in a proposed swap with the state for some pineapple fields in central Oahu.
“I like Carleton’s heart,” Ige said during a press conference last month. “I know he understands, if he was fortunate enough to get confirmed by the Senate, that he understands that he works for the people of Hawaii.”
That hasn’t assuaged the fears of thousands of people who have signed a petition urging the state Senate to reject Ching’s nomination.
“I think the nomination is expecting the public to take an awful lot on faith and that is not fair,” said Marti Townsend, an attorney and executive director of The Outdoor Circle, a local environmental group. “We have had so much controversy over the protection of our natural and cultural resources that for the governor to appoint someone with the background that Carleton has on the promise that everything is going to be OK is not enough.”
But opponents may face a big challenge. One environmental group’s informal poll of senators shows 18 in favor of confirming Ching and only seven opposed, according to a person familiar with the survey.
DLNR’s mission is to “enhance, protect, conserve and manage Hawaii’s unique and limited natural, cultural and historic resources.”
That mission is often in conflict with the goals of developers, say critics of Ching who worry his appointment might signal the erosion of state environmental and cultural preservation protections.
Ching rejects this notion, arguing that his intent is to comply fully with preservation laws and the mission of DLNR. He speaks emotionally about what motivated him to take the post.
He says he never sought out the DLNR top post. Instead, he says, on Christmas Eve, he received a call from Mike McCartney, the governor’s chief of staff, who asked Ching if he was interested in the job.
They talked for two hours. Ching said he declined, figuring it wouldn’t be a good move financially or personally for his family.
But Ching said he changed his mind while watching his granddaughter play basketball one afternoon in January.
“In that moment I got it: I said, so what’s my issue with not taking on this challenge? It’s for us, it’s for all of us, it’s for what we live and breathe,” he said. “She motivated me.”
Critics of the nomination say that not only is Ching too aligned with developers, but he lacks experience in conservation and the management of natural resources and doesn’t have experience leading a major organization with hundreds of employees.
While skeptics have pressed Ige to explain the rationale behind the nomination, the governor has declined to give further details.
Ige didn’t hold a press conference when he announced Ching’s nomination. Instead, the governor announced the pick via a press release on a Friday afternoon.
He later addressed the nomination briefly after his State of the State address when reporters asked if he had a response to criticism of Ching.
“He’s a great leader, a good business mind,” the governor said.
Ige and McCartney declined Civil Beat requests for interviews for this report.
The governor’s office also wouldn’t say who is on the governor’s transition committee, which advises Ige on his Cabinet posts.
Civil Beat was able to independently confirm four of the members — it’s not clear if there are more. The team includes Lorrie Stone, an attorney specializing in land use and development. She’s also the wife of Jeff Stone, who leads a major resort development firm that owns Ko Olina Resort on Oahu and Princeville at Hanalei on Kauai.
Robbie Alm, a former vice president of Hawaiian Electric Co., and Gordon Arakaki, a longtime Ige supporter and real estate attorney, are also on the transition team.
Stone declined to comment on the nomination of Ching.
“I don’t feel that it is appropriate in a personnel matter to tell all the rationale behind it,” she said.
She also wouldn’t say how many people were considered for the position, although she said she believed “there were many.”
Arakaki referred questions to Keith Hiraoka, Ige’s former campaign manager and chair of the transition team, and Alm didn’t return a call for comment.
However, Alm told Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind that he wasn’t surprised by the backlash against Ching and urged critics not to summarily dismiss him because of his business ties.
Alm said he was constrained in what he could say because the selection committee was required to sign nondisclosure agreements.
Regardless of how it came about, Ching’s nomination mobilized environmentalists. Within a matter of hours of the Friday afternoon press release, hundreds of people had signed a petition opposing the nomination.
By Monday morning, more than 20 environmental groups had signed a statement in opposition.
“There is a demonstrated lack of expertise and interest even in any of the programs that come under the purview of the DLNR,” said Marjorie Ziegler of Conservation Hawaii at a press conference before the governor’s State of the State address.
Ching is still employed by Castle & Cooke, but is on leave from his position as vice president of community and government relations pending his confirmation.
He said he expected criticism from environmental groups but derided the swift outcry as contrary to “local style.”
“You don’t judge upfront, you wait to explain,” he said.
But Ching’s resume, which was provided by the governor’s office at the request of Civil Beat, is devoid of experience directly related to conservation.
“For the governor to appoint someone with the background that Carleton has on the promise that everything is going to be OK is not enough.” — Marti Townsend, an attorney and executive director of The Outdoor Circle
His expertise appears to be squarely development-related: His accomplishments include managing Castle & Cooke’s development project in Kunia and lobbying lawmakers to approve Koa Ridge, a planned 3,500-home development off the H-2 freeway near Mililani that the Hawaii chapter of the Sierra Club spent more than 10 years trying to prevent.
In addition to Castle & Cooke, Ching’s previous employers include Molokai Ranch, SSFM International, Zane Development Group and Tropic Shores Realty. He was also recently a board member at the Land Use Research Foundation and Building Industry Association.
Both groups have lobbied hard to change land use and historic preservation rules that Ching would be expected to protect at the DLNR. The Land Use Research Foundation advocated in favor of the now-defunct Public Land Development Corporation, and the Building Industry Association backed a bill last year that would have sharply narrowed the definition of “historic property” in Hawaii, potentially endangering Native Hawaiian cultural sites.
Ching himself argued to diminish the powers of the state’s Land Use Commission back in 2005, an agency that environmentalists say is necessary to contain growth in Hawaii.
Ching says that if he’s chosen for the DLNR, he would put the state’s interests first.
He pointed out that when he worked at Molokai Ranch, he dealt with natural resource issues including forests, endangered species, erosion, livestock and hunting. But he acknowledged that was on a different scale and that at the DLNR, he will need to look to his staff for guidance.
“I may not have expertise but you got to rely on people with expertise,” Ching said.
The director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources is one of the state’s most important Cabinet positions, given the breadth of the department and its huge land holdings.
The DLNR is comprised of 10 divisions and nearly 900 employees. It oversees aquatic resources, boating and recreation, conservation and coastal lands, forestry and wildlife, historic preservation and state lands, including public parks.
It manages 23,000 acres of inland streams, 3 million acres of near-shore ocean waters, 410,000 acres of coral reef and 2 million acres of conservation land.
Overseeing the department is the Board of Land and Natural Resources, one of the state’s most powerful boards. It consists of six gubernatorial appointees and would be chaired by Ching.
The board rules on conservation district use permits, which are needed for projects such as the Mauna Kea telescope on the Big Island to move forward. The board also makes decisions about the management of fisheries and wildlife, fishing restrictions and whether to allow aerial hunting of deer and goats that are harming watersheds.
Also attached to DLNR is the state water commission, a seven-member body comprised of a mix of department heads and governor appointees, which would also be chaired by Ching. The commission is charged with administering the state water code, which was created by the Legislature in 1987 and established protections for Hawaii’s fresh water resources.
The commission has been in the middle of disputes involving large landowners and developers, Native Hawaiians and environmentalists over the allocation of water resources.
If confirmed, Ching would take the helm of the department at a time when developers have a great deal at stake in the decisions that its board and the water commission make.
While DLNR is charged with protecting Hawaii’s natural and cultural resources, the department also manages 1.2 million acres of state lands, a portion of which are leased out for a variety of uses. The Board of Land and Natural Resources has to approve the leases.
As the Honolulu rail project progresses, developers could be angling to secure leases for prime real estate.
Ige highlighted developing state-owned land along the rail line as a priority during his State of the State speech last month, noting that the state is the largest landowner along the transit route.
It’s not clear how much of that land DLNR controls. Leo Asuncion, the interim director of the state Office of Planning, which is spearheading the state’s transit oriented development efforts, in coordination with the city, said that’s one of the things his office is trying to figure out.
“What is happening now is we have a lot of state land around the stations,” said Asuncion. “We need to figure out what is its best use in the future.”
He said DLNR currently covers 60 percent of its programming needs by leasing out lands and that by renting out land along the rail line, the department could cover all of its costs. “If they do it right, they could actually be a sustainable department,” he said.
One developer already eying land along the rail line is Castle & Cooke.
Under a bill recently introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, the state would explore giving the company land along the rail line in exchange for up to 18,000 acres of fallow pineapple fields in central Oahu and the North Shore that Dole Food Company has been trying to sell, according to Hawaii News Now, for $185 million.
Dole and Castle & Cooke are associated companies.
Dela Cruz stressed that the land swap idea is still in its infancy. Castle & Cooke would get land in Kalihi, which currently hosts the Oahu Community Correctional Center, a dilapidated prison that the state is looking to rebuild in another location, and possibly other lands along the rail route, said Dela Cruz.
The sale would ensure that the central Oahu land remained agricultural and would be leased out to smaller farms, said Dela Cruz. Meanwhile, Castle & Cooke would get land that is already classified as urban.
Any transaction involving land controlled by DLNR, would have to be approved — or at least reviewed — by its board, chaired by Ching.
Harry Saunders, president of Castle & Cooke Hawaii, downplayed the company’s interest in the land.
“If it’s something that the state wants to do, we’ll entertain it, but we’re not promoting it,” said Saunders.
Asked whether he would recuse himself if a land swap involving Castle & Cooke came before the land board, Ching was non-committal.
“If it appears to be inappropriate and you have a quorum to take action, then you recuse, let the board take action,” he said. “But I have no idea until you get into that situation.”
There are no state ethics laws specifically prohibiting Ching from ruling on such a deal.
Les Kondo, executive director of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission, said there is a one-year cooling off period for government workers who transition to the private sector, but there is no cooling off period for workers in the private sector that enter government.
However, Kondo noted that Ching can’t hold stock or have a financial stake in a company involved with one of his rulings. There is also a more ambiguous ethics law that would prohibit Ching from giving preferential treatment to private companies.
Castle & Cooke could also appear before the BLNR if it again seeks approval for a wind farm on Lanai.
Saunders said that’s unlikely in the near future. The company is still waiting for approval from the Public Utilities Commission and that agency is tied up with evaluating a multi-billion-dollar merger between NextEra Energy and Hawaiian Electric.
“I don’t see any neighbor island wind happening in the next several years,” Saunders said.
The water commission is also in the midst of deliberating on several high profile issues that have pitted developers against environmentalists and Native Hawaiian groups.
The commission is refereeing disputes on Maui regarding the diversion of water from taro farms in East Maui for use by Alexander & Baldwin, as well as ironing out details in the Na Wai Eha case, in which four streams have been diverted for use by Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co.
The water commission is also expected to rule in the coming months on whether to designate the Keahuou aquifer in North Kona as a groundwater management area. The designation could restrict development along the western slopes of the Big Island where thousands of homes are slated for construction.
The National Park Service has warned that increased development in the area could divert too much fresh water from ancient Hawaiian fishponds, tide pools and coastal areas where native species are dependent on the flow of groundwater.
The proposal is opposed by developers, including the Pacific Resource Partnership, a trade union for the carpenters union, as well as Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who have argued that scientific evidence is lacking to support the designation.
Ching declined to state his view on the issue, saying he didn’t want to disrupt the ongoing review.
“I know water resources are very precious and it is meant for everyone to use,” he said.
Supporters of Ching say that his extensive business background would make him an effective leader at the DLNR.
Saunders of Castle & Cooke said that as part of the company’s management team, Ching managed hundreds of contracted employees as he coordinated a housing project in Kunia.
Saunders also noted that Ching has experience managing budgets that in some cases were many times more than the $30 million in state funds the DLNR may receive for fiscal year 2016.
In defending his pick of Ching, Ige compared Ching with previous department heads.
“We’ve had other directors at DLNR who came from the business sector who did a great job there, Bill Paty, Tim Johns, amongst others,” Ige said. “I’m confident he’s the right person for the job.”
“We’ve had other directors at DLNR who came from the business sector who did a great job there.” — Gov. David Ige
Johns was a vice president for AMFAC, a major land development company. Paty worked as plantation manager for Waialua Sugar Co. for 40 years prior to becoming director, and in fact worked with Castle & Cooke at the same time he held the state post.
But both Paty and Johns also had demonstrated commitment to conservation in addition to business experience.
Paty, who was DLNR director from 1984 to 1992, served as president of Hawaii’s constitutional convention, which created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as well as strong protections for Hawaii’s water resources.
Johns, who served as DLNR director from 1999 to 2000, served as deputy director of the Water Commission beforehand. He also worked as director of protection at the Nature Conservancy for three years.
Still, the DLNR wouldn’t be Ching’s first foray into the public sector. From 1980 to 1990, he served as development project coordinator at the Hawaii Housing Authority, the precursor to today’s Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation.
Ching worked with community members in Waiahole-Waikane, a community on the windward side of Oahu that had garnered attention in the mid-1970s when residents and activists blocked Kamehameha Highway for hours to protest evictions.
The state bought Waiahole Valley in 1977 to help resolve the issue, but the controversy dragged on for two decades as the state negotiated leases with tenants.
Ching joined HHA in 1980, just a few years after the protests, to work with community members to address infrastructure and affordable housing needs.
Bob Nakata is a longtime community organizer who was heavily involved in the Waiahole-Waikane controversy. He called Ching fair-minded and balanced.
“They were not really an easy group for government officials to work with, but he did as well and better than most people did,” said Nakata.
Although many of the activists were militant, Nakata noted that Ching seemed “well-received” by the community. “They saw him as somebody who was a straight shooter.”
Saunders said that’s one of Ching’s greatest strengths: an ability to listen to people no matter what perspective they’re coming from.
“It takes that type of personality — I think Carleton’s got it — to be able to find solutions,” Saunders said.
Whether or not Ching is chosen for the job may come down to how much lawmakers like him.
It seems like they do — sources inside the Senate suggest that Ching has the votes to get confirmed, even if he doesn’t get a recommendation from the Committee on Water and Land.
The committee’s chair, Laura Thielen, declined to discuss Ching’s nomination, except to say she expects to hold a confirmation hearing soon.
A former head of the DLNR herself, she’s likely to bring a critical eye to Ching’s nomination. But even if he doesn’t get her approval, the full 25-member Senate will still vote on his appointment.
“That’s what this is, right? Conservation, hunting — that’s all it is, don’t take them all, leave some for tomorrow. That’s our core belief.” — Carlton Ching
There has always been a close relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists. The Castle & Cooke Legislative Committee donated $2,500 to Ige’s campaign before the general election last fall. Ching’s former employer, rail contractor SSFM International, gave more than $29,000 to Ige, far more than to any other politician.
Ching maintains he simply wants to do what’s best for his family and his community.
He grew up in Kapahulu and went to Kaimuki High School. When he would fish in the stream and bring home opu and opai, he says his Uncle Leslie would say, “You make sure get plenty for tomorrow. Don’t take ’em all.”
“That’s what this is, right? Conservation, hunting — that’s all it is, don’t take them all, leave some for tomorrow. That’s our core belief,” Ching said.
He said his motivation has been criticized as “hokey” by those who see him as profit-driven.
That’s part of the reason Saunders said he tried to talk Ching out of taking the job.
“I knew he was going to get blasted because of his association,” Saunders said. “I know the environmentalists love to hate developers.”