The Hawaii Legislature is trying to figure out what to do with Native Hawaiian trust lands near the Kakaako waterfront that have been the site of several rejected building projects over the last two decades.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has proposed residential developments for some of the lands that it owns in Kakaako Makai, but measures to allow those developments failed this legislative session

Now, the Legislature is poised to form a panel that would be tasked with identifying lands to trade with OHA for those parcels. Past development proposals have run into heavy community opposition.

House Concurrent Resolution 129 and House Resolution 111 would set up the Kakaako Makai working group. Both cleared the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Monday and are on their way to a vote by the full 51-member House. 

Kakaako Waterfront Park Kewalo Basin KSBE aerial.
A pair of House resolutions call for a working group to figure out what to do with OHA’s Kakaako Makai parcels. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Membership of the group would include a member of OHA’s Board of Trustees, the chair of the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, the executive director of the Hawaii Community Development Authority and two members each from the House and Senate.

The working group would be required to submit a report with recommendations to the 2022 Legislature. Part of that report must include lands that could be exchanged with OHA for its nine parcels on the Kakaako waterfront. 

OHA acquired those lands from the state in 2012 as part of a deal to settle a decades-long dispute over revenue from lands formerly held by the Hawaiian Kingdom. The land deal at the time was worth an estimated $200 million.

OHA opposes the resolutions. And while the office would have a seat at the table, it doesn’t plan to take it. Sylvia Hussey, OHA’s CEO, told lawmakers on Monday that participating in those discussions would only set OHA back since the 2012 deal should have settled the land claims.

Hussey said the land value assumed OHA could one day profit from residential units on those lands. Without that development, OHA may not get the revenue it has targeted out of that land.

Senate Bill 1334 would have allowed 400-foot towers to be built on two OHA-owned parcels, but the bill never received a hearing in the House.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said during a rally on March 15 at the State Capitol that the measure would not be moving forward, and instead, that he and Sen. Sharon Moriwaki would try to explore alternatives to development. Saiki hoped to prevent uncontrolled development and preserve open spaces along the waterfront.

Moriwaki, who has previously opposed development on those lands, said in a text message that she hopes the working group could be a way for OHA, HCDA and community stakeholders to work together.

Still, Hussey called the resolution an intrusion by the Legislature on OHA’s authority to manage its own lands. In written testimony to lawmakers, OHA’s Beneficiary Advocacy and Empowerment Committee called the resolution an attack on Native Hawaiian self-determination.

“The idea was to place Native Hawaiian resources into Native Hawaiian hands because Native Hawaiians understood where those resources would best go to meet our people’s needs,” the office said in written testimony.

A special committee from OHA’s Board of Trustees is expected to present its findings on the Kakaako Makai parcels at a hearing on Thursday.

Long Opposition

Community groups in Kakaako have long opposed the idea of developing anything makai of Ala Moana Boulevard.

In 2006, lawmakers banned any residential development around those areas. And in 2011, the HCDA approved a conceptual master plan for the Kakaako Waterfront Park. The plan envisioned a community center, an amphitheater and park improvements, but no development in the surrounding area.

Ron Iwami, president of the nonprofit Friends of Kewalos, told lawmakers Monday that the master plan should be considered as part of any future proposals for the waterfront. Iwami supports the working group but opposes development on the land.

“I’m hoping these resolutions would bring everyone to the table so we can come to a solution so we don’t have to go through this year after year,” Iwami said, adding that the community has resisted development for more than 16 years.

Rep. Gene Ward was the only House member to vote no on the two resolutions. He said the House’s plan is unfair to OHA, especially if the office was promised land value they can’t access without a residential development.

The resolutions are expected to clear the House, with HCR 129 then going to the Senate for consideration.

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