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A year after former Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced a historic $48.5 million deal to preserve 665 acres at Turtle Bay Resort in perpetuity, Gov. David Ige unveiled a new $45 million agreement that would protect less North Shore land, cost Honolulu taxpayers more money but save the state $5 million.
Ige’s deal would protect 635.3 acres at Turtle Bay Resort, about 29 acres less than the agreement brokered by the Abercrombie administration.
Instead of spending $40 million for a conservation easement, however, the state would use $35 million in general obligation bonds to purchase 55.3 acres outright, while 532.2 acres would be preserved in a conservation easement.
That means that while Turtle Bay Resort would still own the 532.2 acres, the land could never be developed even if it is sold.
Update Under the deal, the City and County of Honolulu would chip in an additional $2.5 million on top of the $5 million it promised to contribute last year. That will secure 5.1 acres of city-owned conservation land and 42.8 acres in future park land.
The Trust for Public Lands and the Army would add another $2.5 million to pay for the agreement.
In addition, another $1.5 million from the Legacy Land Conservation Program and $1.5 million in state hotel tax revenue would be used to pay for the debt service on the bonds, Ige said. (His administration didn’t include the debt service in the total price tag of the agreement, and neither did Abercrombie last year.)
The deal announced Thursday doesn’t block all development. Like the previous plan, Turtle Bay Resort retains the right to build two additional hotels with 625 rooms and 100 resort residences on land that’s not covered by the negotiation.
The agreement comes with other public benefits. It would increase the shoreline setback for planned beachfront development near Keiki Pond from 100 feet to 150 feet; double the number of public parking stalls available to improve public beach access; and ensure that the resort’s golf course would be be available for use by the Kahuku High School golf team in perpetuity.
“We are preserving open space and recreational opportunities along Oahu’s shoreline for future generations.” — Gov. David Ige
But the new deal excludes 29.3 acres near Kahuku Point that was protected in last year’s version, to the disappointment of Hawaii Trust for Public Lands director Lea Hong and North Shore Community Land Trust director Doug Cole.
Still, both say they’re happy with the new plan. Just last month, they were worried the deal was in jeopardy after a House committee didn’t schedule a hearing for House Bill 284, which sought to extend funding for the conservation easement.
Environmentalists have spent decades fighting the expansion of Turtle Bay Resort, contending that the hotel’s planned build-out would despoil one of the last undeveloped shorelines on Oahu. On Thursday, environmental advocates and legislative leaders crowded behind Ige to express support for the new version of the plan.
The mood was less jovial compared with Abercrombie’s announcement last year, but House Speaker Joseph Souki, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and Hong spoke well of the revised deal.
“None of us could do this individually,” Ige said later in a press release. “We have worked together as partners to accomplish something significant for the state. We are preserving open space and recreational opportunities along Oahu’s shoreline for future generations.”
Although Thursday’s announcement is a significant step toward resolving the conflict over development at Turtle Bay, there are many loose ends.
One big unanswered question is the fate of the 29 acres left out of Ige’s deal.
Scott McCormack, vice president at Turtle Bay Resort, said that the company is willing to work with environmentalists to find a way to preserve that land in the future.
Attorney General Doug Chin also said the state intends to work out a way to conserve the parcel.
That may or may not involve more state money. Cole and Hong both said they will be exploring how federal funds could possibly be leveraged to protect the excluded acres.
Cole and Hong also want to try to save 32.6 acres of beachfront property near Kahuku Point that were not included in either conservation easement plan because of the high land value.
In addition, there’s a lot that needs to be done in order to actually secure the money needed to pay for the deal.
The state would need to go through the Legacy Land Conservation Program application process in order to get access to $1.5 million to pay for the debt service. The City Council would need to sign off on spending an additional $2.5 million.
Much more immediately at the Legislature, a conference committee would have to vote on HB 284 by the end of the day Friday. The bill must pass both chambers next week in order to secure the state funding.
McCormack from Turtle Bay said the company hopes the conservation easement can be established by September. Negotiations were originally expected to take less than a year, but the change in gubernatorial administrations threw off the timeline.
Meanwhile, Unite Here Local 5, a union for hotel workers, has settled its lawsuit against the resort protesting the expansion. Two other lawsuits by the Sierra Club and the Keep the North Shore Country also reached settlements that are contingent upon the conservation easement being established by September.
The deal announced Thursday is similar to the original financing plan proposed by Abercrombie last year.
Abercrombie wanted to use $40 million in general obligation bonds to fund a conservation easement that would cover about 665 acres.
At the time, Ige — then a powerful state senator who was planning to challenge Abercrombie in the Democratic primary — criticized the governor’s funding plan.
Ige proposed a revised plan that included restructuring the debt owed on the Hawaii Convention Center and using $33 million in hotel tax revenue to pay for the debt service on a $40 million revenue bond.
During the campaign, both Abercrombie and Ige sought to use the success of the Turtle Bay agreement to win over voters. Ige trounced Abercrombie in the August primary and went on to win the general election.
Ige said Thursday the reason he now supports using general obligation bonds is because the government has figured out a way to pay for the debt service.
Hammering out that deal took a lot of time and effort on the part of the governor, many lawmakers and advocates.
“It is a much better deal than the original offer and one that will allow us to create a nature park out of Kawela Bay for generations to enjoy.” — House Speaker Joseph Souki
Last year, numerous lawmakers criticized Abercrombie’s proposal for being rushed and skipping the legislative vetting process. Some didn’t think the state was getting a good deal by paying $40 million for a conservation easement and not owning the land outright, and several continued to oppose that idea this year.
The new version of the agreement is more politically palatable but may still concern some environmentalists given the smaller amount of land being preserved and the use of the Legacy Land Conservation Program.
As recently as Wednesday, 15 environmental groups sent a letter to House and Senate money committee chairs to urge them not to raid the Legacy Land Conservation Program and the Land Conservation Fund to pay for the conservation easement.
Still, Ige’s plan has robust support from House and Senate leaders.
“It is a much better deal than the original offer and one that will allow us to create a nature park out of Kawela Bay for generations to enjoy,” Souki said in a press release. “Together, we were able to come up with a plan that not only overcame the initial roadblocks but, more importantly, preserves a part of Hawaii that makes us a better community as a whole.”