A proposed charter amendment on the ballot this year would allow money from a city land conservation fund to be used to maintain restrooms and other facilities in addition to acquiring land for conservation and outdoor recreation.

Kahi Pacarro, a member of the Clean Water and Natural Lands Commission, a seven-member advisory panel for the fund, said it’s prudent to fund maintenance and environmental mediation projects, which are a financial burden for nonprofits, landowners and public trusts that currently have the responsibility.

“Long-term upkeep of these places is challenging,” Pacarro said. “So this is going to be a financially awesome gift for these properties that have been awarded funds through the commission.”

An amendment to the city’s governing charter proposes extending the use of money from the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund, created in 2006, receives 0.5% from real property taxes — which is projected to be about $7.5 million for the fiscal year that began on July 1 — to be used solely to purchase land for conservation and outdoor recreation purposes. 

Charter amendment proposal No. 3 – one of four proposals being weighed by Honolulu voters in the Nov. 8 election – would allow the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund to spend 5%, or more than $375,000, of its budget to fund maintenance, operation and management of those lands.

The funds, overseen by the city Department of Budget and Fiscal Services, would be allocated to maintain restrooms, parking lots and for environmental remediation on existing and newly acquired lands.

Pacarro said he hopes the new use of the funds will encourage people to apply for projects. 

In written testimony, David Penn, a former commissioner of the Clean Water and Natural Lands Commission, opposed the measure, saying it would turn the funds into a “Clean Up Seller’s Mess Fund.” He noted that using the funds for environmental remediation may be too big of an undertaking.

“If the City wants to use the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund for investing in an applicant’s purchase of contaminated land, then I expect the City to require that the contaminated land be cleaned up prior to purchase, or through pre-purchase funding of post-purchase cleanup,” Penn wrote.

“If the City is the buyer, and does not require pre-purchase cleanup, then I expect the City to use other sources of funding for post-purchase cleanup, while accepting full risk and full responsibility for pre-cleanup, post-purchase damage to environmental and human health,” he continued.

A 5% Cap

Pacarro said buyers often purchase property without knowing what’s under the soil but noted that the maintenance and remediation portion would be capped at 5% of the overall fund.

The commission’s responsibilities include considering proposals by the city’s budget office and submitting recommendations to the City Council for approving expenditures from the Clean Water and Natural Lands Fund. It’s also in charge of reviewing and approving applications for specific projects. 

Pacarro said the approval process is rigorous and challenging, but the commission encourages people to bring forth more projects.

“We go through this exhausting application and analysis to make sure that we’re only putting forth the best projects for our community,” he said, adding that it takes approximately two years to select and acquire property. 

Department of Parks and Recreation spokesman Nathan Serota stressed that the additional use of the funds would not amount to a new tax. 

“This is not money for anything else,” Serota said. “This is using an existing fund for an additional purpose.”

The charter amendment needs approval from more than 50% of voters in a “yes or no” choice. Mail-in ballots were being sent to voters this week.

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