Private development on public land--who gets what?
Image: courtesy sen. donovan dela cruz

Who’s reaping the benefits of developing public resources?

“Land that the [Hawaii] Supreme Court said cannot be sold will be up for these long-term leases and sweetheart deals. That seems really immoral to me.” –Marti Townsend

The state is creating a new entity to spur private development of public lands through a process that, according to critics, will open the door to sweetheart deals, leaving citizens with little oversight.

Lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to approve the Public Land Development Corp. (PLDC), which was billed as a way to generate revenue for the cash-strapped Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) by privatizing state land, buildings and resources.

But Act. 55 “is so far reaching that it opens up opportunities for abuse” and could trigger a development rush similar to the one that followed statehood, says Marti Townsend, executive director of KAHEA, an alliance of Hawaiian and environmental interests.

“There’s still a lot of uncertainties about how it will all play out,” says Donna Wong, executive director of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends. “But it’s clear the intent of Act. 55 is to cut through all red tape.”

And that includes exempting private developments pursued under the PLDC from state and county land use designations, zoning ordinances and building codes, including the need for general contractors.

Those exemptions prompted Sen. Les Ihara Jr. to cast the Senate’s lone vote against the bill. In an email, he wrote that he felt they “were too broad and could lead to PLDC developments harmful to our environment and communities.”

The exemptions also work to exclude the public from the process. Leases and the proposed transfer of land and development rights from the state to private entities will have just one hearing before the Board of Land and Natural Resources, Townsend says, with citizens given a mere six days notice.

“You’ll now have to set your hair on fire at the 11th hour to protect lands that are culturally, environmentally and historically significant, because they don’t have to consider that,” Townsend says.

“You miss a meeting, and it’s gone,” adds Wong.

The PLDC, directed by a board whose members include former state Sen. Robert Bunda; head of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism Richard Lim; Budget and Finance director Kalbert Young; deputy director of the DLNR Guy Kaulukukui; and private developer Duane Kurisu, also has authority to issue bonds and negotiate 65-year land leases.

That concerns Arnie Saiki, the coordinator for the upcoming Moana Nui indigenous rights conference, who has likened Act. 55 to a “21st Century Mahele”–a reference to the 1848 act that ushered in private ownership of Hawaiian lands. He is particularly concerned that transnational corporations will reap the benefits of developing public resources, while taxpayers foot the bill for infrastructure.

Saiki and others are also concerned about how PLDC activities might affect the so-called “ceded” lands–thousands of acres transferred into US control following the 1893 illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

“Land that the [Hawaii] Supreme Court said cannot be sold will be up for these long-term leases and sweetheart deals,” Townsend says. “That seems really immoral to me.”

At an Aug. 30 legislative briefing, Sens. Malama Solomon and Donovan Dela Cruz, who spearheaded the bill, spoke about using the PLDC to create density around high-speed rail stations and spark the development of state harbors, rural areas and geothermal energy.

A clearer picture of what’s in store may emerge when the PLDC completes an inventory of state-held property and drafts a Public Lands Optimization Plan, or PLOP, which is due before next legislative session.

In the meantime, it must also choose an executive director. At its next meeting, the Board will be asked to whittle down the list of 18 qualified candidates to three to five persons for interviews, according to Kaulukukui. He said the state attorney general advised that the names of contenders need not be released prior to a selection being made.

The board must also craft its own governing rules, which are subject to Gov. Abercrombie’s approval. But while Dela Cruz promised at the briefing that the public would have ample opportunity for input into the rules, he said the governor wants people to “be proactive” and not wait for the PLOP to be completed. Kaulukukui said the board could begin to look at projects before it rules and before bylaws are done.

Thus far, however, the board has had some difficulty convening. Its first public session was cancelled when it failed to meet requirements of the State Sunshine Law regarding open meetings. Its second meeting, originally set for Oct. 5, also had to be rescheduled because it was not posted on the state’s official online calendar, as required by the governor’s recent executive order.

“There’s a lot of ‘trust us, trust us’ coming from Dela Cruz and DLNR, but as we’ve seen in the past, we can’t trust you,” Townsend says. “Our interests don’t align with yours.”