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Kent Untermann said he had no idea until earlier this year that iwi kupuna — Native Hawaiian burial remains — might lie in the path of his plans for a residential development on an Aina Haina hillside .
But state officials knew about the possibility 12 years ago. That’s when they wrote a letter to the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting asking that no building permits be issued for the property until an archeological survey was done.
But a city employee misfiled that letter, and two years ago the DPP approved Untermann’s development plans.
Now remains have been found in a small cave on the site, Untermann’s project is on hold, and the DPP’s deputy director has publicly acknowledged the city’s failure to act sooner.
Untermann, who said he wants to build eight homes on the site for his family members, started excavation work last year. But he said he stopped this summer after learning there could be burial remains on his property.
The State Historic Preservation Division, which monitors historical properties and cultural sites for the Department of Land and Natural Resources, sent DPP a letter in November 2006 asking that no building permits be issued for the property until an archeological survey was done on it.
But a department employee did not file that letter with the appropriate property documents.
“The person who was assigned to file the report did not read the contents of that report,” said Timothy Hiu, the department’s deputy director.
Hiu said that the employee, who he did not identify, along with the rest of the staff has since been counseled on the importance of these types of documents.
“If we knew at that time, we would not have issued a building permit or grading permit,” Hiu said. “It resulted in the situation we’re in today.”
The result: Untermann must now put his project on hold while he figures out what to do with the remains.
“It would have been so much easier for all of us to know at the time,” he said.
Hiu said that the permits would be difficult to revoke.
Untermann hasn’t resumed work yet, and was instructed to develop a burial treatment plan last week by the Oahu Burial Council — one of five in the state that determine if iwi should remain where they are found or be relocated.
That means Untermann will need to work with area residents, some of whom have opposed his planned development in the past, to come up with a resolution.
“We’re going to do this the right way,” he said.
What that “right way” involves must still be hashed out, with a plan then presented to the Burial Council.
That process includes research into the history of the property, consultations with lineal or cultural descendants of the dead and a proposal to either preserve the bones in place or relocate them.
Oahu Burial Council Chair Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu said the council usually determines that iwi should rest where they were found.
“If you guys say it needs to stay in place, it’ll stay in place,” Untermann told the council.
Residents were also at the council meeting and urged it to rule that the iwi should be preserved in place.
“I would ask that we honor the kupuna and don’t bulldoze the cave system,” resident Chris Kramer said.
The property has been a source of contention for more than a decade. In 2006, the city rejected building permits for a 16-unit condominium development proposed by Untermann.
“The DPP did not support the cluster housing project, as presented, because of the steep topography of the site, the amount of excessive development proposed over slopes exceeding 40 percent, and the proposed grading (cut and fill), which was significant,” Henry Eng, then-DPP director, wrote in the 2006 rejection letter.
Untermann pivoted in 2015 and got permits for up to eight single-family homes, despite residents raising the same concerns that were stated in Eng’s 2006 letter.
Untermann said he doesn’t want to sell the homes he builds; he just wants them for his family.
Untermann said that the planned development for the property could help mitigate runoff from the hillside and improve drainage.
Much of the property has already been graded and excavated, and the hillside has been cut to make way for the homes. However, the area containing the cave with iwi hasn’t been excavated, at least not by Untermann’s workers.
A military access road used to cut through Untermann’s property. Bob Rechtman, an archeologist contracted by Untermann to survey the property and engage with concerned community members, said that the cave may have been cut initially by road construction.
Plans had called for the area with the cave to be leveled, but those plans are on hold.
“No one wants to bulldoze burials,” Rechtman said.
He estimates that the remains may be from the late-1800s or early-1900s based on some beads and a coffee can found in the cave that may have been manufactured during that time period.
Rechtman said fragments of fingers, broken ribs and pieces of vertebra were in the cave. Regina Hilo, a burial specialist with the state Historic Preservation Division, said the remains are believed to be Native Hawaiian, according to a document.
Rechtman and Hilo surveyed the project site twice without finding the entrance to the cave in overgrown grass.
There are at least two lava tubes close to the property that also contain iwi, according to a Historic Preservation Division letter.
One is west of Untermann’s site on private land, Rechtman said, and the other is also nearby.
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