Ten years ago, Kaneohe residents Grant Yoshimori and Julianne McCreedy were honored by the Legislature for their “extraordinary dedication” in overcoming “overwhelming obstacles” to stop the development plans of a powerful Houston-based corporation.
The Kaneohe pair and their allies scored a big win when the state Land Use Commission unanimously voted in 2009 to turn down the expansion plans of Hawaiian Memorial Park, a cemetery in Kaneohe owned by Service Corporation International.
SCI is the nation’s largest end-of-life services company. It owns and operates 450 cemeteries and more than 1,500 funeral homes nationwide.
Back then, state leaders called Yoshimori and McCreedy the “unsung heroes” of a neighborhood alliance that protected a piece of land that officials called a precious natural and cultural resource.
Fast forward 10 years. SCI is back again with a revised plan that seeks the same goal: To change the zoning of the land from “conservation” to “urban” in order to expand the cemetery. It’s essentially asking the Land Use Commission for a do-over.
But this time, opinions are more sharply divided about the proposal. At a time that many native Hawaiians have become active opponents of development elsewhere, in this case, several groups have become vocal advocates.
On the other side Yoshimori and McCreedy, neighbors who live next to the proposed cemetery expansion, are gearing up for battle once again.
“It’s been a long road,” Yoshimori said with a sigh.
At the center of the debate is a steep, heavily forested parcel of land with a commanding view overlooking Kaneohe Bay and a panoramic backdrop of the Koolau mountain range.
It also houses an extensive heiau, or Hawaiian temple complex. The site hovers on a hillside above a quiet, middle-class Kaneohe neighborhood, the Pikoiloa subdivision, and Pohai Nani, a retirement community.
Next month, on Nov. 21, the Land Use Commission will decide if the neighborhood group, Hui o Pikoiloa, will be permitted to participate as intervenors in the proceeding, which will also directly involve SCI, the city and the state.
“Usually we’re pretty liberal on motions to intervene,” said Daniel Orodenker, executive officer of the Land Use Commission.
Hawaiian Memorial Park, operating under the name Hawaiian Memorial Life Plan, is asking for a district boundary amendment that affects 53 acres of a 164-acre parcel adjacent to its existing cemetery.
That cemetery is a scenic 80-acre sanctuary located about midway between Kaneohe and Kailua. It’s bounded by H-3 on one side and Kamehameha Highway on the other side.
The project would allow the development of about 30 acres of new cemetery space with the necessary roads and infrastructure.
Hawaiian Memorial Park opened in 1958 on land purchased from Kaneohe Ranch, and the owner at the time bought the additional parcel from Kaneohe Ranch in 1982. In 1999, SCI bought the cemetery.
In an interview, Jay Morford, president of Hawaiian Memorial Life Plan, said that the cemetery, which now houses 41,000 burials, needs the additional expansion space because it is running out of land for future burial plots.
Many families like to be buried together, he said in an interview, and the expansion will ensure that family members will eventually be able to join relatives who have already died.
“It will provide a future for generations of families to be in the same spot,” he said. “We’re providing a service that’s needed. That’s not a need that’s going to go away. It’s not just about us. It’s about the need.”
Since 2007, when the company first asked for the rezoning, the company has changed its proposal, shifted its strategy and also increased its footprint in the state.
At that time, the company owned just three funeral companies in Hawaii — the cemetery in Kaneohe and two funeral homes, according to an annual report that year.
But the company has since become the biggest funeral service provider in Hawaii, with 10 properties in the state. It owns two funeral homes and a cemetery on Maui, a funeral home on the Big Island, a funeral home on Kauai and three funeral homes and two cemeteries on Oahu.
SCI’s business strategy calls for buying existing funeral homes that are well known to local people and then gradually introducing mass retailing practices and corporate efficiencies that boost profitability.
As the company grew into a national powerhouse, it has attracted controversy along the way. SCI has been regularly at odds with the Federal Trade Commission, which has raised significant concerns with the company over the years for what it has called anti-competitive practices. The funeral industry has consolidated, with fewer players having outsized economic power.
In 2009, when the Land Use Commission turned down SCI’s original petition for a land use change, officials said the cemetery had not proven that it needed the additional burial space and that the plan did not adequately provide for protection of the historic structures on the site.
Officials also said the project did not conform to the Koolau Poko Sustainable Communities Plan, a general land-use management plan for the area that was adopted by the city of Honolulu in 2000.
Project opponents were jubilant at their victory. But SCI didn’t give up.
Before going back to the Land Use Commission in 2017, Hawaiian Memorial Park had reconsidered its approach. The company made substantial changes to its original proposal, including reconfiguring the site plan. The company eliminated an unpopular housing project and improved the drainage plan. And most notably, the company promised to turn the 14.5-acre heiau site over for cultural stewardship by a nonprofit organization.
Those changes have turned Mahealani Cypher, a long-time member of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, into a supporter of the expansion.
She said that the heiau site has suffered from benign neglect — including one period of time when teenagers played paintball among the stones of the heiau — and she is pleased that the project will come under the supervision of Hawaiian cultural practitioners.
Cypher said that many local people want the cemetery to have more expansion space because they expect to be buried there some day themselves.
“Among the elders, they felt that local families want to be buried together in the same place,” said Cypher, noting that eight to 10 of her own relatives are buried at Hawaiian Memorial Park.
“They want to ensure that space is there for them all to be together,” she said. “Local families are really sensitive to that thing.”
Opponents of the expansion plan would like to see the cemetery use its existing space more efficiently by burying people closer together in the existing cemetery or permitting more cremations in a single location instead of bulldozing adjacent land to create more burial plots. They also believe that in the future, fewer people will seek traditional burials.
Maurice Radke, chairman of the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, said he hasn’t seen the final updated proposal yet but that the cemetery’s owner has worked to make the project more palatable to the community.
“They’ve gone above and beyond,” he said.
Sentiment on the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, however, is mixed. In May, a motion to support the project’s environmental impact statement failed to win enough votes to get board authorization.
Meanwhile, the company also approached the city and successfully sought and obtained changes in the Koolau Poko Sustainability Plan.
Neighborhood residents who opposed the cemetery expansion tried to get support from within the Honolulu City Council to stop the plan amendment.
But Ikaika Anderson, who represents the Windward district on the council, had recused himself from participating in the vote because his family owns Haliipua Flowers, a floral shop located across the street from Hawaiian Memorial Park.
Project opponents turned to council member Kymberly Pine, who represents western Oahu. She added requirements to the plan language that would move the proposed project farther away from residential dwellings.
“Councilwoman Pine tried to put protections in for us as best she could because Ikaika Anderson recused himself and we had no representation,” Yoshimori said.
Now Yoshimori, McCreedy and their allies are working to assemble the evidence they will need to continue their protest of the proposed expansion. The Land Use Commission works much like a court proceeding, with both sides presenting evidence and interviewing witnesses.
They are hopeful the previous commission ruling will work in their favor and that the final wording of the Koolau Poko Sustainability Plan will limit the amount of developable land available to the cemetery.
They are also hoping that the discovery of a rare kind of damselfly on the site, a find that has been confirmed by a state entomologist, will aid their cause as well, with Yoshimori noting it is an endangered species.
But he and other opponents know they are facing a tough battle.
“It’s frustrating, it’s very frustrating,” he said. “We thought it was over with when the Land Use Commission finally ruled in our favor. It’s a huge burden on us homeowners when we need to keep fighting a multimillion dollar corporation.”
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