It was the spring of 1997, and the front page article in the Haleakala Times began with a story of bulldozers tearing up one of Wailuku’s busiest streets, exposing burial sites and other “significant archeological remains.”

Maui County locator map

After the crew’s discovery, Maui’s Cultural Resources Commission set out to create a new county law to map out areas known to have cultural and archeological resources. The goal: To protect the heiaus,  historical trails and other remnants of Maui’s past and prevent developers from ever digging up the sacred resting places of iwi kupuna which halt development in its tracks.

But the proposal didn’t go anywhere. In the decades that followed, the battles over the desecration of iwi kupuna continued — despite another county-wide plan in 2010 calling for such a map.

Until recently, when council member Shane Sinenci of Hana took up the cause once again.

The Haleakala Times issue from the spring of 1997 discussed the effort to protect cultural sites. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

After more than a dozen meetings, hours of emotional public testimony and back and forth with a number of local departments, Maui County is now on its way to becoming the first in the state to create an interactive map, or “cultural overlay” in the county’s jargon, to allow anyone to search the historical and cultural legacy of a property.

Proponents say it would “ensure the past is not erased” but also potentially stave off bitter fights by giving developers a tool to understand what’s on a property — before they offer to buy or build on it.

“The disturbance and desecration — we can’t stop it. It’s already happened,” Johanna Kamauna, a former member of the state’s burial council for Maui and Lanai, told county officials during a recent meeting.

“The overlay (mapping tool) is an opportunity (so that) … everyone will be well aware of what’s going on and possibly even be able to work together.”

Maui County archeologist Janet Six demonstrated a mock-up of the new interactive map. 

Under the law, the county’s archaeologist would be tasked with overseeing the effort to build an online interactive map that will allow citizens to search for a property and toggle between a wide array of information, including Hawaiian place names and their meanings, photographs, land commission awards, soil types, building footprints, historic maps, video clips, chants and the locations of critical historical events. Depending on the number of significant findings there are on a piece of land, property owners who want to build there may need to go through additional review.

The Maui County Council’s passage of the proposal marked the last action of what some have called the most progressive group of leaders in county history. Over the last two years, they’ve enacted a number of drastic — and often contentious — measures including protecting wetland areas from development, shifting dollars away from promoting tourism to support local farmers and taking back control of plantation-era water systems.

The proposal to create the map of Maui’s cultural resources also wasn’t without controversy. Although many opponents said they recognized the need, they criticized the language of the bill for being “too vague” and questioned the reliability of the data that would go into the map.

The Hawaii Hotel Alliance, meanwhile, raised concerns about what might happen if someone disagreed with the findings and if it would end up forcing property owners to sue the county to “protect their property rights.”

“We want to see something that … will be able to withstand any legal challenges, that will be able to move forward as soon as possible,” Lahela Aiwohi of the Hawaii Hotel Alliance told the council. “Because we need that; we need a guidance for developers.”

Proponents say the bill will help developers by allowing them to easily learn which properties may not be suitable for building. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Now the bill heads to the desk of Mayor Michael Victorino. The proposal comes less than two years after he hired Maui County’s first staff archeologist, a first-of-a-kind job among Hawaii counties aimed at protecting Maui’s rich history, preventing expensive lawsuits caused by poor development planning and a role as a liaison to the State of Hawaii Historic Preservation Division.

The county tapped longtime Maui archeologist Janet Six, who at a recent meeting was described as a “unicorn” by one county department head because of her ability to get projects moving without compromising the protection of cultural and archeological resources.

Since taking the job, she’s worked alongside the understaffed state division to add a heightened level of vetting at a county level; helped county officials survey potential sites for affordable housing while avoiding burials; used ground-penetrating radar to determine where the county should put in a septic tank in Hana; and worked with county staff to create the proposal to create the map of cultural and historic resources, a measure that some residents started advocating for more than 25 years ago.

Under the new law, Six will come up with “cultural sensitivity designations” — areas of the map shaded in green, yellow or red where there are, for example, known burials, archeological sites or important historical features, although the exact location of vulnerable sites won’t be published. Areas for where no information is currently available won’t receive a designation.

“Whether you’re a developer or someone who’s looking to buy something, I think it’s important that you know this kind of information,” Six said during a recent meeting. “And it’s a great way to display it that’s easily accessible to people.”

Many of the fights over burial desecration have unfolded in Central Maui. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Under the proposal, if someone is trying to pull a county permit to change the zoning or build on land with a “cultural sensitivity designation,” the permit will be sent to the county archeologist for review, who then has 90 days to give a recommendation. Depending on what she finds, she could suggest that developers change plans to protect certain parts of the property or send it to another state agency for further review.

Gina Young, an executive assistant in council member Sinenci’s office, said across Maui County, the vast majority of properties won’t receive a designation because there isn’t historical or archeological information available at this point. In general, she said the new law should streamline permitting because all projects are currently referred to the state’s swamped historic preservation division, which can take up to 18 months for its review.

As new information comes to light, the map will serve as a living document that’s continuously updated.

A beach near Lahaina in West Maui.
The interactive map will need to be vetted by council members again before approval. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

“I’ve heard loud and clear both sides of the aisle; that this doesn’t go far enough, that it’s too vague,” said council member Tamara Paltin. “This isn’t perfect, but to anyone in the construction industry that doesn’t want to come across burials, this sets the framework for addressing the issues before they happen.”

Some of the most visible battles over the desecration of sacred sites have unfolded in her West Maui district. Paltin herself worked for almost two decades in the area, where in the late 1980s, excavation crews trying to build the new Ritz-Carlton resort uncovered more than 1,000 ancient graves; the impetus of the current burial protections that Hawaii knows today.

Other sacred places, like Mokuʻula, once the spiritual center of the Hawaiian Kingdom, was backfilled long ago, Paltin said. It’s now covered by a county park.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

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