Hawaii House Water and Land Committee Chairman Rep. Ryan Yamane cancelled an upcoming hearing on two bills that would have given long-term lease holders of nonresidential property the right to purchase the land that they’re renting.

Yamane’s decision effectively kills both proposals, House Bill 1635 and House Bill 2173, which were sponsored by House Speaker Joseph Souki. The lawmaker from Maui singled out the issue out as a priority in his opening day remarks. The proposals would have applied to new commercial leases of 15 years or longer approved this year.

While the bills sought to help lessees, they would have diminished the land holdings of large property owners like Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate.

Kapalama Canal at Dillingham Street intersection where future proposed Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate developments and rezoning is planned. 5 dec 2014. photograph Cory Lum
Kamehameha Schools Bishop Estate owns much of the land around Kapalama Canal and leases it to businesses. Souki’s proposal would have given these small business owners a pathway to purchasing the property. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The trust set up by Hawaiian Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop is the largest private landowner in Hawaii and uses its revenue to fund the education of Hawaiian children. The estate created a webpage criticizing the bills and launched a social media campaign last week with the hashtags #StopForcedSales and #StopForcedLandSales.

“Who could have imagined that in today’s modern world, lawmakers in our government would be trying to revive the unforgivable practice of forcibly taking ‘āina from Native Hawaiians,” estate chief executive officer Livingston “Jack” Wong wrote in a letter shared over 700 times on Facebook. “One would have hoped this type of practice was in a distant, regrettable past.”

Yamane issued a statement Monday explaining his decision: “Through my office’s extensive research, we have decided that these measures are not only unconstitutional, but they would severely impact Hawaii’s ancestral lands and redefine the property rights of all non-residential lands,” he said.

In a phone interview, Yamane said he initially scheduled a hearing at the request of Souki, whom Yamane said was hoping the bill would address concerns of small business owners that they were getting priced out by rising rents.

But Yamane said that state House legal counsel pointed out problems with the bill and estate officials told him the measure could cost $2.4 billion. The representative from Mililani said he was most worried about the possibility of land held in trust for Hawaiians being sold to outsiders.

“Property rights are sacred, especially the aina here in Hawaii, so that was really troublesome,” he said. “For me there is no question that these bills should not be moving forward.”

There’s always a possibility the measure could resurface if its wording gets added to another bill and the proposal is not referred to Yamane’s committee. Souki was unavailable for comment Monday afternoon.

In a letter Monday, Wong from the estate warned about the possibility of the proposals returning:

“Today, the news is positive. But with nearly three months remaining in the legislative session, we will continue to monitor the process for any signs of these bills being brought back in some other form. We must be vigilant, and we will alert you all if the need arises. E kūpa‘a mau!”

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