Two Hawaiian activists who are leading opposition to a controversial city-funded ball field project in a forested park in Waimanalo say they have been meeting privately with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell to find a way to resolve the bitter impasse over the park’s future.

After a fierce standoff that has lasted seven months, Caldwell has recently twice traveled to Waimanalo to meet with two of the founders of the park-opposition group, Save Our Sherwoods, according to activists and plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to stop construction at the site.

“The mayor is listening to the community of Waimanalo right now around this project,” said Kuike Kamakea-Ohelo, a longtime Waimanalo resident and a leader of the opposition group who participated in the meeting.

“We’re moving forward, we’re progressing. We’re seeing a side of the mayor we haven’t seen in recent times. He’s really trying to listen.”

Caldwell’s office declined to comment for this story.

Sherwood Forest Kalanianaole Encampment.
Project opponents have been living around the clock at an encampment in Waimanalo Bay Beach Park since September. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The disputed construction project is located at a popular recreational gathering place known as Sherwood Forest, which is part of Waimanalo Bay Beach Park. But the Hawaiian activists who have organized opposition to the project have given the park a new name — Hunananiho — in remembrance of a traditional Hawaiian place of refuge that existed nearby in ancient times.

The historical significance of the area is now widely acknowledged, with city officials agreeing that the broader area has long been on the National Register of Historic Places. Some archaeologists believe the Bellows area is the oldest recorded site associated with the original Polynesian voyagers.

It has also been the site of Hawaiian burials over the past several centuries.

The meeting with the mayor may signal a possible reconciliation over a dispute that has pitted hundreds of local residents against city officials at stormy public meetings and that led to a mass arrest of 28 protesters who were trying to block passage of construction equipment to the site.

Since then, dozens of protestors have engaged in a peaceful political protest they call “holding space,” where they have occupied land at the entrance to the park, setting up tarps to protect themselves against wind and rain. They are using it as a staging area for lectures about Hawaiian history and as a communal gathering place to share meals of donated food with supporters.

As they are doing on Mauna Kea, the park opponents are using a strategy called kapu aloha, which refers to a passive resistance model that is peaceful, persistent and prayerful and minimizes the risk of physical injury to any of the participants.

Community residents have been living and sleeping there around the clock since late September to underscore their determination to protect the site. A sign on the wall of the fenced compound bears these words written in Hawaiian: La 52, which translates as Day 52.

Protestors measure the days they have been holding vigil to stop development
Sherwood Forest construction opponents keep track of their time on site. La is the Hawaiian word for sun, or day. Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2019

Construction on the site has been halted, leaving a large field of dirt and heaps of debris behind in what had once been a natural wooded landscape.

Discussions Are Preliminary

In April, after minimal public notice, Honolulu embarked on the first phase of a multi-part construction project that would have turned the serene and secluded enclave into a regional ball field complex with up to 470 parking spaces. Many residents did not know the project was underway until the bulldozers arrived and started clearing the formerly forested area.

Many Waimanalo residents asked city officials to stop the construction work.

But Caldwell said that halting it would cost $300,000 because the contracts had been signed and the city was committed. City officials said the park construction project had passed through the proper approval channels with almost a decade of deliberation, but many residents protested that only a small number of political insiders had been privy to the decision at the time.

In June, the Waimanalo Neighborhood Board voted 10-1 to oppose construction at the site.

City officials said they would stop the project after the first phase — a multi-purpose ball field, a playground and a small parking lot — was completed. A spokesman for the mayor called the truncated project a compromise that had been reached with Waimanalo residents.

But park opponents said that there was no such compromise, and that they objected to any part of the project going forward, including the ball field in phase one. They say they want the entire project canceled.

“We want to kill the masterplan,” said Kamakea-Ohelo. “We don’t want a sports field here. We want to honor the historic and cultural value of this place and the kupuna buried here.”

Kalani Kalima, another SOS board member who attended the meeting, described the negotiations as “amicable,” but indicated that discussions are still in a preliminary stage.

“It went as positive as it could go under the circumstances,” he said. “Nothing is done, we are keeping communications open.”

Lawsuit Progresses

Even as discussions have begun, a lawsuit filed by SOS, along with four named plaintiffs, is moving slowly through the courts.

On Sept. 25, the group filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Interior Department and the City and County of Honolulu questioning whether they had properly followed laws protecting the environment and historical sites and asking for an injunction barring construction at the site until the legal claims are sorted out.

Lawyers for the city and the federal government have filed motions asking the court to dismiss the lawsuit, saying that the group lacks standing to make such claims.

U.S. District Court Judge Leslie Kobayashi scheduled a hearing on the motions to dismiss for Feb. 14, five months after the filing of the initial lawsuit.

Some of the other plaintiffs in the lawsuit are concerned that the meetings with the mayor could undermine the persuasiveness of the lawsuit. Sometimes the willingness to seek compromise is seen as weakening the legal argument.

“It would certainly not be something I would do,” said Maureen Harnisch. “They can’t make a deal with the mayor.”

The secret meetings are disconcerting to some park opponents, said Tracy Puana, another Waimanalo activist.

“It’s an odd situation,” she said. “It’s causing a great deal of difficulty. People are asking questions that can’t be answered.”

Waimanalo resident Tracy Punea is part of the group "holding space" at the park since late September
Tracy Puana, one of the protesters against the ball field project, has been there for the 52 days. She said some are wondering whether talks with Mayor Kirk Caldwell are a good idea. Kirstin Downey/Civil Beat/2019

The group’s attorney, Tim Vandeveer, said that it was unfortunate that community groups believe they need to file lawsuits to get the attention of their elected officials and that resolution of the claims would require bringing everyone to the table.

“Any talk of settlement needs to be vetted thoroughly and agreed upon by all the folks involved in the lawsuit,” he said.

Kamakea-Ohelo said the lawsuit has advanced their cause.

“We were crossing our fingers and hoping an injunction would be granted,” he said. “The lawsuit has applied pressure on the defendant. The community now has a seat at the table.”

He said the political fight ahead, which he called opposition to “quote-unquote progress” is a long-term battle, not a short-term legal skirmish, over the rights of Hawaiians to reclaim land that is important to them.

“We have been fighting this for over 100 years,” he said.

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