It looked as though a major fight was brewing over Gov. David Ige’s plan to relocate an aging Oahu jail.

On Tuesday, the Legislature held a pair of hearings to consider House Bill 2388 and Senate Bill 2917, two companion bills calling for the relocation of the Oahu Community Correctional Center, currently in Kalihi.

Under the two measures, the Ige administration would enjoy wide discretion to seek out the most cost-effective arrangement for the relocation — using more than $489 million to be made available through an issuance of general obligation bonds.

But critics were up in arms over one provision in the proposal: The Ige administration would be exempted from a new environmental review process, so long as it pursued its interim plan to build a new jail adjacent to the Halawa Correctional Facility.

Chair Chris Lee and Chair Ryan Yamane during meeting involving Prisons
Members of two House committees, from left, Ryan Yamane, Chris Lee, Nicole Lowen and Cynthia Thielen, consider bills for moving the Oahu Community Correctional Center to Halawa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Marti Townsend, the director of Sierra Club of Hawaii, argued that conducting environmental studies is “not onerous.”

“Our position is simple: conduct an environmental assessment on the prison proposal as state law requires,” Townsend said in her written testimony. “How else can the project proponent know that the proposed site is the right location, that the proposed building is the right design, that the proposed use meets our stated needs? It can’t.”

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs called the exemption “unnecessary and inappropriate.”

“The exemption in this measure would … set a dangerous precedent for any future ‘high-priority’ public projects,” OHA said in its written testimony. “Our environmental review process demonstrates our state’s well-founded belief that the desire for development should never outweigh the importance of careful, responsible planning, particularly when public resources are involved.”

During the hearing on HB 2388, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen said she was also wary of the exemption.

“The exemption in this measure would … set a dangerous precedent for any future ‘high-priority’ public projects.” — Office of Hawaiian Affairs

Thielen noted the state’s similar attempt at exempting the Hawaii Superferry from an environmental review process — a move that was ultimately struck down by the Hawaii Supreme Court.

“We’ve been down that road before,” Thielen said.

But it turned out that the fight was over before it began.

Prior to the hearings, Hawaii Attorney General Doug Chin had submitted written testimony to urge lawmakers to strip the exemption from the bills, even though doing so would add about a year to the building process.

Nolan Espinda, the director of the Hawaii Department of Public Safety, testified that he supported Chin’s recommendation.

Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, told Civil Beat that the department’s policy reversal was intended to allow the bills to “move forward.”

“We are willing to take the time to do the (environmental studies) requirements because it is the right thing to do,” Schwartz said.

In the end, two House committees adopted Chin’s recommendation, including an amendment to allow a commenting period to be for 60 days — instead of 30 days, as specified in Ige’s proposal.

Members of the Senate Public Safety Committee did the same with SB 2917.

But Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, pushed for more.

Brady said Ige’s proposal tries to circumvent a 1998 law that directs state officials to “develop and implement a community partnering process” when planning for new correctional facilities.

“The heart of the law — involving the community early on in the process — in the development of the request for proposals has been cut out by this administration,” Brady said. “What are they afraid of? What is it that they do not want to disclose? Is it because an environmental review triggers a “No Build” alternative where the state must justify the project with a thorough analysis (open to community review) of other alternatives?”

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