HILO, Hawaii Island — Ed Olson has a reputation as one of the good guys in environmental circles.

Olson, who made a fortune in the self-storage business, owns about 13,000 acres on the Big Island —mostly in Kau and North Hilo — and has kept nearly all of them in agriculture and conservation. He sits on the board of the Trust for Public Lands, and has been instrumental in saving beach tracts such as Kawa in Kau, which he bought and then sold at a loss to the County of Hawaii.

He and his wife, Sammi Stanbro, played a major role in the 2% for Public Lands initiative, which ensured that a portion of Hawaii County’s property taxes go to purchase and protect open spaces. He donated half a million dollars to The Nature Conservancy.

So it came as a surprise when environmental activist Koohan Paik-Mander circulated a Facebook post last month claiming the Edmund C. Olson Trust No. 2, which holds most of Olson’s land, had “destroyed” the 1920s-vintage Amauulu Plantation Camp Cemetery with bulldozers while preparing a tract of land in North Hilo for rezoning to an urban subdivision designation.

A broken headstone in the Amauulu Plantation Camp Cemetery.

State Historic Preservation Division

The trust’s representatives say any damage was accidental, done in the process of clearing years of overgrowth from the abandoned cemetery, which they say was already badly damaged.

Paik-Mander urged local residents to attend an informational meeting that County Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter called regarding the rezoning proposal on Friday.

Although the Planning Commission has already forwarded the plan to the County Council with a positive recommendation, Paik-Mander noted that a complaint lodged by the DLNR’s State Historic Preservation Division against the trust about the cemetery damage in 2017 remained unsettled.

“A good developer or a pono developer would wait until any pending charges regarding the desecration of an historic cemetery was resolved before moving forward,” Paik-Mander said. “Is that too much to ask?”

The trust maintains that it wants to resolve that complaint, but that the DLNR board has never acted on it.

In December 21017, Alan S. Downer, head of SHPD, sent a letter to the board of the DLNR asking it to levy $64,960 in fines and administrative fees for damage to four grave sites in the cemetery and impacts on “Amauulu Camp Cemetery as a whole.”

The letter acknowledged as “mitigating factors” the facts that the trust was “aware of and attempting to locate the cemetery and that it self-reported the initial damages.” But an aggravating factor was the trust’s alleged failure to stop work when told to.

One archeologist’s “professional judgment is that the damage described in this assessment is clearly too recent to be attributed to activities prior to the current grubbing,” wrote Downer, who also said that new damage observed on later visits by state officials could only have occurred “after the County had issued a stop work order and prior to the issuance of the required County of Hawaii permit.”

Asked about the complaint, DLNR spokesperson A. J. McWhorter would only say only that it was still “under review and we won’t be commenting on it.”

The tombstone of Mary Kaahia Kepoo (1870-1920) may be the most intact marker remaining in the cemetery.

State Historic Preservation Division

Trust representatives say that the cemetery was already in terrible shape; in the 1950s, for instance, a grazing bull tied to an old car axle had dragged it through the area, upsetting tombstones.

Family members had disinterred at least one, and possibly many, of the cemetery’s occupants and moved them elsewhere.

When the trust first acquired the property, said Stanbro, the cemetery site was so badly overgrown that workers couldn’t tell its extent, so they cleared out brush and applied weed killer to the area so an archeologist could survey it.

“Nobody cared about it,” said Stanbro. “We were the only people that went in there to take care of it.”

According to former trust land manager John Ross, in September 2016, a bulldozer operator clearing tall grass and stumps near the cemetery site “mistakenly encroached in the setback area and impacted a set of cemented stones that may have been part of a grave site.”

Since the county’s stop-work order, Stanbro said, the trust was “blocked from even being in there to take care of it.”

Meanwhile, the spraying and clearing had made the area more accessible to antique bottle hunters and homeless campers, who may have done further damage.

The trust wants the area rezoned for 49 house lots, with a 50th lot designated to preserve the cemetery site and a 51st that will become an extension of the county’s Clem Akina Park. The plots in question lie just across the Wailuku River from Hilo town, but are currently rural.

Sydney Fuke, left, and John Ross talk to residents at Friday’s community meeting.

Alan McNarie/Civil Beat

About two dozen residents attended attended Friday’s meeting. Trust officials told them the state had granted permission to move forward with the rezoning while the cemetery case was still pending.

“Regardless of what’s done with the subdivision, this cemetery is going to stay intact,” said trust representative Sydney Fuke.

Some residents contended, though, that there may be more undiscovered graves. One said that poorer members of the plantation community marked graves with wooden crosses that had since rotted away. Others noted several different plantation camps had existed in the area, each with their own burial sites.

Fuke said the cemetery was believed to cover only about an acre, but that the trust’s plans called for 2 acres to provide a buffer zone around it.

Community members raised other concerns, including erosion and runoff and whether the area’s deep soils were stable enough for home foundations. Some worried that the new subdivision would become a wealthy gated enclave. Others suggested the acreage would serve the community better by remaining farmland.

“Are you going to have an agreement with us that states that you going to use the land to benefit the community?” asked longtime resident Jeno Enocencio.

Fuke and Ross assured residents that the subdivision would not be gated and that the main road would be dedicated to the county, which required at least four access routes to the subdivision.

They said Olson, 88 and in declining health, did not plan to build a subdivision himself, and was only applying for rezoning because others had suggested that inexpensive housing was needed close to Hilo. If a subdivision were to be built, it would require further studies on issues such as drainage.

The County Council is expected to hold hearings on the rezoning application sometime later this month.

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