A popular measure that would boost protection for Honolulu’s treasured but endangered ancient sites is off to a strong start at the Honolulu City Council.

Bill 44, a measure introduced in July that would create a city historic preservation commission, has already attracted at least six of the nine votes necessary for passage. It could possibly pass by the end of the year, supporters said.

The bill, championed by council member Esther Kiaaina, passed its first reading last month before the full council. On Tuesday it won the unanimous support of the five council members gathered at a hearing before the council’s housing and the economy committee. Another bill supporter is council chair Tommy Waters, who co-sponsored the bill with Kiaaina.

Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate Queen's Retreat fire
The Boyd-Irwin-Hedemann Estate, also known as the Queen’s Retreat, was covered by graffiti after it was abandoned. It burned down in June. Courtesy: Merrill Johnston/2019

Officials at the city Department of Planning and Permitting and the State Historic Preservation Division, speaking at the hearing, also said they endorsed the measure.

More than 80 people testified in support of the bill, either remotely, in writing or in person.

Historic preservation advocates have been stirred to action by a string of losses, including the destruction in June of the Queen’s Retreat, the country home that inspired Queen Liliuokalani to compose the song “Alohe Oe,” and the partial demolition of ancient stone walls linked to King Kamehameha in Niu Valley in February.

One letter from building industry officials, however, said that while they supported the idea in concept they feared a historic preservation commission might slow down development.

A string of famous names stepped forward in support of the legislation. Veronica Kawananakoa, the wife of Abigail Kawananakoa, who is a descendant of Hawaiian royalty, including Kauai’s King Kaumualii, wrote a letter of strong support, saying the commission is needed “to keep Oahu’s historic buildings safe and protected.”

Authors of books about Hawaii’s ancient sites said they have watched as famous old properties were demolished.

“I have watched the destruction of numerous sites that were seen as inconvenient barriers to development, or in some cases, not seen at all for what they were,” wrote Jan Becket, a co-author of the 1999 book “Pana Oahu,” which documented some 125 pre-contact sites on Oahu.

“The list is long: Kukiokane Heiau in Luluku, now under the H-3 Freeway, Nioi Heaiu in Laie, now partly under a sewage treatment plant, Hawea Heaiu in Maunalua, partly destroyed by Kaiser Development, the numerous fishing shrines at Oneula, destroyed to create the footprint of the Ewa Marina that never got built,” she wrote. “The continuing eradication of Hawaiian cultural sites impoverishes us all and stands as an indictment of currently toothless preservation safeguards.”

Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina during hearing on historic preservation.commission Bill 44.
Honolulu City Council member Esther Kiaaina is a primary backer of Bill 44 that, among other things, would create a historic preservation commission for Honolulu. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Bill 44 is needed “to provide greatly needed oversight of Oahu’s sensitive cultural and historic sites as tourism and development increase in the islands,” wrote Van James, author of “Ancient Sites of Oahu” and similar books about Hawaii island, Kauai and Maui.

Residents from around the island shared their sense of loss and asked council members to act to save what remains by establishing the commission.

“Outsiders buy land to develop without knowledge or caring for the sacred importance of these islands,” wrote Jody Green. “Many sacred spaces are already sadly desecrated, lost forever.”

Jeannine Johnson, secretary of the Niu Valley Community Association, said she and her neighbors had been “shocked and dismayed” when ancient stone walls were torn down so the landowner could have what she called “a larger driveway.”

On the other hand, several participants worried that adding another level of bureaucracy over land use control could further slow down development on Oahu.

Following criticism from builders about backlogs at the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, Council member Andria Tupola released a report in August that found that it takes six to 24 months to obtain city building permits for residential and commercial construction.

Daryl Takamiya, president of the state Building Industry Association, said that although the trade group did not oppose creation of the commission, he and his colleagues fear additional delays on top of what the industry is already experiencing, which he said “have already pushed building timelines to the limit, hampering the inventory of affordable housing on Oahu.”

“We would like to ensure that this Commission does not add to the delays the building industry is already experiencing,” he told the council in a statement.

He suggested that the city take steps to ensure that the historic preservation review process undertaken by the State Historic Preservation Division should not duplicate what the city does.

Kiaaina said it would be important to set up the commission carefully to avoid slowing projects that don’t raise preservation issues.

“If you can streamline our processes, we’re open to that,” said Dawn Takeuchi Apuna, acting director of DPP, who said agency officials are “very supportive” of the measure.

Bill 44 would amend and put into effect a bill passed in 1993 to create a nine-member historic preservation commission. The legislation won unanimous council approval at the time but a string of mayors have opposed it over the past 30 years, fearful it would slow development.

Then-Mayor Frank Fasi vetoed it, and when the council overrode his veto, he went to court to block it. The lawsuit was dropped but the bill fell into limbo. Succeeding mayors, one after the other, declined to appoint members to it, resisting calls from preservationists to set it up and put it into action.

In 2020, Kathy Sokugawa, then acting director of the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, tried to kill the ordinance that created the commission, saying it was unnecessary.

But council member Waters defended the commission and fought off the effort. In July, Waters and Kiaaina introduced the current measure.

“We’re moving ahead and exploring all methods to get there,” Kiaaina said.

Honolulu is the only large destination city in America without a historic preservation board or commission.

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