Members of Local 5, seated, among overflow crowd

Environmentalists, union leaders and native Hawaiians have formed a loose coalition to push for repeal of Act 55, which created an agency intended to spur private development of public lands.

The opposition movement was launched during a recent series of meetings intended to seek comment on draft rules to govern the new Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC). Instead, hundreds of people around the state used the opportunity to voice disapproval of the entire agency.

A group calling itself ‘Ohana Hawaii has launched a petition drive calling for the State Legislature to repeal the bill it approved with near unanimous support last year. The bill was introduced by Sen. Donovan Delacruz, who said it would help to fast-track development around rail stations and accelerate geothermal development. Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed it into law as Act 55.

The movement has found a friend in Laura Thielen, the former director of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) who recently won the Democratic primary for a state Senate seat. Thielen vowed to seek the overturn of Act 55, and dismissed claims that the PLDC would generate funds for the cash-strapped DLNR.

Thielen testified at last Wednesday’s Oahu meeting, which attracted several hundred persons and about 70 speakers. “They had provided such a small conference room that there was a huge spillover outside,” recalled Stuart Scott, who was number 49 in line to comment. “A couple of people made reference to the rules but the vast majority asked that the Act be repealed,” he noted.

Eric Gill of Local 5 organized union members to attend and express concerns about the public losing control of its lands.

Much of the opposition seems focused on the agency’s ability to issue long-term leases on the so-called “ceded lands,” which the Hawaii Supreme Court has said the state cannot sell. “It’s like the second overthrow,” said Kauai disc jockey Kaiulani Mahuka during a radio show devoted to the topic.

Others are worried about the agency’s broad powers to approve private development projects on state lands.

Opposition was so intense at the first meetings held on Maui, Molokai and the Big Island that PLDC Executive Director Lloyd Haraguchi issued a press release stating, “The PLDC is not exempt from federal laws, state environmental impact laws, nor state historic preservation laws. The PLDC is committed to working with county zoning and permitting requirements to ensure that its projects conform to county guidelines.”

Not everyone is down on the PLDC. The General Contractors Assn. and the Land Use Research Foundation, an advocacy group for developers, have expressed support.

Once the PLDC reviews the comments, its proposed rules may be revised, which would prompt another round of public hearings.