Rail’s local oversight board on Thursday gave unanimous approval to a $7 million increase in costs to outside legal firms as the city prepares for an eminent domain lawsuit against one of the island’s most prominent developers.

That developer, Dallas-based Howard Hughes Corp., and its local subsidiary Victoria Ward, Ltd., could seek more than $200 million in damages for the nearly 2 acres of easements needed to build the rail line through their Ward Village properties in Kakaako, according to a new Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation slide presentation.

Rick Keene, HART’s chief operating officer, said Thursday that a series of motions currently being argued in court aim to eliminate at least some of the claims that Howard Hughes is seeking by the time the matter goes to trial in May. That effort could reduce the $200 million estimate, he added.

Future site of the Kakaako Rail Station.
HART and the city are locked in a costly legal battle with Howard Hughes over easements needed at the site of the future Kakaako rail station, which includes this parking lot next to Ward Avenue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Some 80 witnesses have been deposed to date, according to HART. That includes at least two of the agency’s former executive directors, Keene said Thursday.

The $7 million increase will go to two firms; Starn O’Toole Marcus & Fisher, and Nossaman. It’s only the latest in a series of increases to represent the city in the high-stakes condemnation battle. Those fees started at $4.6 million, but they’ve since grown to more than $23 million.

HART initially offered Howard Hughes $13.5 million for the easements, located on a series of parcels between Cooke and Kamakee streets, project records show.

The HART board discussed the litigation in private with its attorneys for over an hour Thursday before emerging via virtual meeting software to deliver its 8-0 vote. The trial had been slated to take place this past August. However, the Covid-19 pandemic helped push it to May, according to Keene.

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