OHA needs a Land Konohiki

By: OHA Trustee Rowena Akana

Source: Ka Wai Ola o OHA, April 2005

‘Ano’ai kakou… On August 19, 2004, The Honolulu Advertiser ran an article titled “OHA gets offer of free Puna land.” Six months later, the offer was withdrawn because OHA took too long to finalize the deal. Sound familiar? It should.

The same thing happened in late-2002 when a mainland company named PH Industries offered to donate 198 acres of land in Maili to OHA, 80 to 90 acres of which were developable. The company was leaving Hawaii and wanted to donate its land. OHA waited too long to respond and the company sold it to someone else for almost nothing. Trustee Oswald Stender, the budget chair at the time, said he did not see the urgency of the deal and failed to take it up in his committee in a timely manner.

There were so many possibilities for the Maili property. It was cleared of environmental hazards and zoned for agriculture and conservation use. At the very least, OHA could have sold it to a developer. The land was valued at $3,000,000 and it was sold for a measly $100,000. It was unconscionable to let such a huge opportunity slip through the cracks. Unfortunately, history tends to repeat itself.

On August 18, 2004, Joe Wedeman made an offer to donate 66.4 acres of Puna land to OHA on behalf of his wife, Harriet, who had inherited the land from her mother. About 35 acres contained no archaeological sites and could be developed. Trustee Boyd Mossman said the gift was a “tremendous opportunity” and could be an educational and cultural resource for students.

Trustee Carpenter and I immediately sent a memo to Trustee Stender after the offer was made, and asked him to bring it to the Board of Trustees for a vote as soon as possible. Trustee Carpenter wrote that “time is of the essence.” I specifically reminded Trustee Stender about the Maili debacle.

On September 1, 2004, Trustee Stender responded that he asked the OHA Administrator and his staff to ensure that a “due diligence” study is done before the issue could be presented to his committee. On September 29, 2004, the Administration reported to the Board that the consultants they hired, MN Capital Partners, LLC, needed three-weeks since they needed to visit the site.

Ten-weeks later, on December 17, 2004, my staff checked with the ARM committee to see whether the due diligence study was done or not. It was not. The Administration finally presented the due diligence study to the Board of Trustees on February 16, 2005. Unfortunately, it was too late. Mr. Wedeman had already sent a fax to OHA two days earlier, withdrawing the offer (the entire fax was just one sentence).

All this could have been avoided if OHA followed a May 2002 recommendation from the Land Committee’s (back when OHA had five subject-matter committees) to create an OHA Land Division to be headed by a “Land Konohiki,” an expert specializing in land acquisition, management, and investment and ceded land claims. The Land Konohiki could quickly look at and consider private lands for acquisition or even partner with other Hawaiian agencies to acquire land.

The first step in the Land Konohiki plan was to hire a land consultant to review prior land studies and make recommendations to the Board. The plan was passed by the Board on October 30, 2002.

Unfortunately, despite my numerous inquiries, nothing was done about the issue for months. On April 4, 2003, the Administration reported that they were still looking for a consultant. The Administration’s slow pace can only be blamed on the lack of direct Trustee oversight. When the current leadership took over in late-2002, they got rid of the Land Committee and there was no one to keep their feet to the fire.

It is sad to think of all the lost possibilities. If we had a Land Konohiki in place, our beneficiaries would now be in control of 264.4 acres of land. It is a supreme irony that OHA spends millions to lobby for federal recognition and yet continues to refuse free land. What good is a sovereign nation without a homeland?