The future of a proposal intended to prevent the accidental destruction of burials and other important cultural sites by creating an interactive map to display the historical legacy of properties now rests largely in the hands of Maui’s new group of County Council members.

Maui County locator map

In one of his last actions as the county’s top executive, former Mayor Michael Victorino vetoed a Maui County Council proposal that directed the local government to create a map — known as a “cultural overlay” in the county’s jargon — to document the island’s rich history. The map would allow anyone to search a wide range of information including maps, building outlines, video clips, chants and the locations of pivotal historic events.

The proposed law also directed Maui County’s staff archeologist to review and make recommendations on certain development projects if they happened to occur in areas near vulnerable cultural sites.

But for now, it’s unclear what the future holds. The Maui County Council can override the former mayor’s veto by passing the bill again with a two-thirds vote, but the council has so far struggled to make decisions because it’s politically divided and currently missing a member.

Under the vetoed proposal, exact locations of sensitive sites like burials wouldn’t have been disclosed. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

The county administration could also look to move forward with building the map on its own. A spokesperson for the Bissen administration didn’t respond to requests for comment. 

Proponents argued that the bill would stave off destruction of sites, prevent the lawsuits that can follow and speed up the current project review process. In his memo, however, Victorino said that, while he applauded the intent of the bill, he thought it would bring “unintended consequences.”

Among his concerns: that the county’s archeologist would have too much discretion, creating “opportunities for arbitrariness and delays,” and that the map should be completed before the county took other steps. He also questioned if the criteria by which a property would be given a “cultural sensitivity designation” was too broad and said it was “unclear what the impacts of the mapping will be.”

“I urge the next council to take up the matter of the cultural overlay and work with the stakeholders to craft a bill that operates within the law to provide greater information about and better protection for iwi and other historic properties,” Victorino wrote.

The measure was put together through 14 meetings over the course of almost two years, a process that included back and forth with the state’s Historic Preservation Division as well as the county’s archeologist, attorneys and departments of Planning and Public Works. The bill was supported by the planning commissions of Maui, Molokai and Lanai as well as the county’s Cultural Resource Commission, according to county documents.

A photo of a rock wall in the Kipahulu District
A historic rock wall in Haleakala National Park. It’s been harder to protect historical sites on privately-owned land. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

Initially, the bill aimed to “ensure the past is not erased” was almost universally supported.

In the first vote in November, it passed the council with an 8-to-1 vote. But in the weeks that followed, organizations including the American Resort Development Association of Hawaii and the Hawaii Hotel Alliance raised concerns about whether the county’s archeologist would be given too much power and argued that it would be duplicative of existing planning processes. But the measure passed again 6 to 2 in the final vote in December (one council member was absent).

“Being afraid to create a map because you may not like what it shows is sad and disrespectful to island residents and Hawaiian people,” council member Shane Sinenci, who introduced the bill, said in a statement about the veto.

Right now, Sinenci said, the current system isn’t serving anyone. Even after undergoing a lengthy state review process, it’s not unusual for contractors to hit burials and disturb the sacred resting places of iwi kupuna when trying to develop property, he said.

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

Right now, the county often relies on the state’s Historic Preservation Division to review projects, which is reportedly understaffed and backlogged.

Sinenci said that having Maui County’s archeologist review projects would mean that she could recommend to the county staff who approve permits that projects skip the state process if it’s safe to build there. If enacted, the measure would’ve required that the archeologist give a recommendation within 90 days — a timeline that’s faster than the state and other county agencies that have the power to approve permits.

“The bill merely allowed (the county’s archeologist) to review projects and make recommendations to department directors,” Sinenci said. “It gave her no authority.”

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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