Protecting Public Lands
Residents testify against the PLDC at public hearing
“It is dangerous to put public lands in private hands,” said Molokai resident Kauhane Adams. Yet it seems that this is exactly what legislature created the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC) to do when they passed senate bill Act 55 in 2011 that established the corporation.
The PLDC’s intent to “generate additional revenues for the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR) by developing under-utilized or unused public land,” according to a written statement circulated by the PLDC.
Homesteader Adolph Helm claimed that the PLDC would allow “fast-track boondoggle projects that benefit the private developer and the pockets of the well-connected [while] stripping Native Hawaiian beneficiaries of trust lands.”
Sentiments against the advancement of the PLDC have echoed throughout the state at similar meetings hosted by the PLDC last month on Hawaii Island, Maui, Oahu and Kauai. These public hearing meetings were meant to gather community feedback on its proposed new administrative rules, but have largely resulted in Hawaiians calling for the repeal of Act 55 and the disbanding of the PLDC.
Who determines what is best for the land?
PLDC’s Executive Director Lloyd Haraguchi opened the Molokai meeting, held last week at Mitchell Pauole Center, with an example of an “unused public land” — an abandoned school building that, in addition to being a safety hazard, is not being used to the best of its ability. The space could instead be developed to generate additional revenue to benefit the Department of Education, said Haraguchi. He insisted that the PLDC is committed to finding “the highest and best use of land within a community.”
Resident Glenn Teves questioned how the five board members of the PLDC –who may constitute a quorum with only three people –would define what would be the “highest and best use of land.”
“They may believe major developments like shopping malls is the ‘best use’ for the land because it generates more revenue for the state, but the community may believe that the best use for that land is farming,” said community member Cheryl Corbiell. “This is an excuse to get more money through private partnership by using our valuable resources”
Haraguchi agreed that there is no specific formula to determine what projects will be “best,” but he said the PLDC is committed to keeping the community’s interests in mind when considering proposed projects.
“The PLDC board will consider each project based on the experience of the board members, the community input received at the various stages of the project and the project proposal itself to determine if the project serves the economic, environmental and social benefit for the people of Hawaii and the community where the project is to be located,” said Haraguchi.
Proposed projects may be located on any state-owned public land, including ceded lands, according to Haraguchi. In Hawaii, there are 1.8 million acres of ceded lands that belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy under Kamehameha’s rule. When Hawaii became a state in 1959, that land was transferred to the state. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) was established to protect the entitlements of Native Hawaiians, including these lands. Funds raised from any projects developed by the PLDC will go in part towards OHA, said Haraguchi.
“Ultimately it comes down to profit, because you are trying to support DLNR with revenue from these lands,” said one community member. “My fear would be privatized hunting grounds, camp grounds and fishing grounds will become unavailable to locals who are not able to pay the fees it would cost to be profitable.”
Exemption from the Rules
One of the most controversial aspects of Act 55 statewide meetings are the exemptions granted to the PLDC from development requirements.
Haraguchi stresses that the PLDC is not exempt from federal laws, state environmental laws or state historic preservation laws. It is allowed to waive Chapter 301 of its administrative rules, Rules of Practice and Procedure, in order to “enable the board to have greater flexibility in the conduct of proceedings before it,” according to Haraguchi. Similar exemptions have been granted for agencies like the Hawaii Community Development Corporation, Department of Agriculture and DLNR, but have not been cause for significant objections because they have been rarely used, he said.
“Moreover, the proposed provision would not allow the PLDC Board to waive the rules in this chapter for any reason, there has to be a basis in the law for waiving a rule,” said Haraguchi. Also, all parties involved would need to agree to the waiver, he added.
“You guys create these rules and laws but don’t even follow them,” said Molokai High School teacher Gandarva Ross. “You bypass all the rules put in place to protect our public land trust and then take away our right to give input to the public process.”
Haraguchi insists that the community will not by bypassed.
“Any developer or the PLDC must conduct or participate in at least one public meeting in the community to solicit input on the proposed project before the PLDC may take action on the project proposal,” said Haraguchi via email. “Lastly, when the PLDC board acts to give final approval to any project, they can only do so at a public meeting and the community is again welcome to provide testimony.”
History of the PLDC
The corporation was formed after Legislature passed Senate Bill 1555, authored by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Malama Soloman and signed into law as Act 55 by Gov. Neil Abercrombie in 2011. It is a state entity that aims to attract private companies as joint partners in development opportunities through public-private partnerships, according to its website.
It is governed by a five-member board of directors representing three state agencies –the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), the Department of Budget and Finance and the DLNR. One member is appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives and one member by the president of Senate.
“Act 55 is intended to strike a careful balance between entrepreneurship while still maintaining the state’s duty to uphold public interest,” said Haraguchi in an email. “[It] has the potential to provide the state with…a viable model for generating additional revenues without having to exclusively rely on fees and taxes.”
Haraguchi urges written comments regarding the PLDC to be submitted by Sept. 14 to Joy.Y.Kimura@hawaii.gov or P.O. Box 2359, Honolulu, HI 96804.