State transportation leaders have reversed plans to cancel their lease at the Dillingham Airfield, a reprieve that spares the general aviation businesses there from having to close or relocate by the end of the year.

In a Sept. 17 letter, Hawaii Department of Transportation Director Jade Butay told the military, which owns the airfield, that his agency now plans to keep the lease there through July 2024. 

Previously, the state agency announced it would leave the airfield for good in December, after having leased it for private use over the past six decades or so. 

“Everybody that’s at the airport and associated with it is just ecstatic with the news,” North Shore-based parachute mechanic Ben Devine said Thursday. He leads the legal defense organization Save Dillingham Airfield, which formed after the DOT announced in January 2020 its plans to leave.

Skydivers load up plane for their next jump at Dillingham Airfield.
Skydivers load up plane for their next jump at Dillingham Airfield. The state DOT recently reversed its decision to terminate its lease there, a move that will allow the general aviation tenants there to keep operating. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The tenants there understand, however, that the issues that prompted the state initially to pull out of the airfield still need to be resolved, Devine added. 

In looking to leave, HDOT had expressed concerns that its most recent five-year lease there was too short to secure federal grant dollars for improvements. It further stated that it was spending about $1 million a year to subsidize operations at a property that it doesn’t own.

“DOT notes that, at this time, there has been some progress on … a long-term lease,” Butay wrote in his letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Real Estate Division. “In light of the progress, DOT is hereby revoking its notice of termination.”

The agency reserves the right to cancel if the issues don’t get resolved, however, Butay’s letter added. 

Specifically, the parties still have to determine who will supply water to the airport in place of DOT. Sen. Gil Riviere said in a statement Thursday that they’re looking to create a local cooperative to manage the water system.

Descendants of the Hawaiian families who previously lived at Kawaihapai, the site of the airfield, commended state and federal leaders on Thursday for acknowledging their cultural claims to the area, which includes burial sites for iwi kupuna, or ancestral remains.

“There’s a rich deep Hawiian culture and legacy on that aina,” said Mokuleia resident Thomas Shirai, who said his family lived at Kawaihapai until the military took the land for the airfield in the 1940s.

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