Land Trust’s Acquisition of Mokio Point on Hold

Molokai Land Trust’s long struggle to take ownership of Mokio Point just got a bit longer. After over three hours of discussion and testimony at last Wednesday’s meeting, the Molokai Planning Commission (MoPC) opted to delay a vote on the Land Trust’s (MLT) parcel on the west end.

The land was gifted to MLT in 2008 in a controversial deal with Molokai Properties Limited (MPL), commonly known as Molokai Ranch. Before MLT can assume ownership, the 1600-acre parcel must be subdivided from a 4800-acre parcel, a small piece of about 60,000 acres that MPL owns on the island.

A subdivision would normally require a Special Management Area (SMA) permit, but because MLT has no plans develop the land, they went before MoPC requesting an SMA exemption.

“We have no inclination, no desire or any kind of intent to develop that property for commercial use,” said Colette Machado, MLT board president and Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee.

The Maui County Planning Department recommended an exemption because the department saw no negative environmental or ecological impacts resulting from the subdivision, according to Mikal Torgerson, Molokai Staff Planner.

MLT currently manages the land and public access to it under a letter of agreement they signed with MPL in 2008 and a 99-year lease signed in 2009.

The commission’s approval of the exemption is one of the last barriers standing in the way of MLT assuming ownership of land.

MLT Executive Director Butch Haase stressed that this was an opportunity to take Mokio Point out of the hands of foreign corporate ownership and return it to the Molokai community. But this argument concerns some who have questioned MLT’s commitment to community access to the land.

A Special Place
Mokio Point on the island’s northwest coast sits between Ilio Point and Mo`omomi Preserve, with about 5 miles of rugged shoreline. The land is home to many endangered plant species, seabird nesting colonies and at least a dozen distinct archaeological and cultural sites, according to Haase.

“This land was recognized by the local people as hunter’s paradise and fisherman’s dream,” Jimmy Duvauchelle told commissioners. Duvauchelle worked for Molokai Ranch from 1966 until it closed in 2008. 

“Let every trail continue to be gracious to our people,” he said in his testimony in support of the Land Trust.

Open Access?
Many commissioners and people who testified at the meeting expressed concern over the public’s access to the land.

Under MLT’s access policy, which is already in place, the land is accessible to the public for cultural practices and subsistence activities including hunting, fishing and gathering. Haase said that MLT may also grant other types of access requests.

MLT issues a limited number of visitor permits and Molokai residents have priority over off-island visitors. There is no fee for a permit and MLT has never denied a request for access under the system, according to Haase.

At the meeting, representatives from MLT said access must be regulated for both liability and conservation purposes — more visitors would mean greater environmental effects.

“This is conservation land. It’s not a public park,” said MLT board member Cheryl Corbiell.

Commissioner Lori Buchanan worried that MLT had excluded public input when it drafted the access policy.

Haase said MLT publicized their public access policy when it was created in July last year. He later added in an interview that he had not expected access to play a major part in the commission’s line of questioning.
 
“I would say we were caught a bit off guard,” he said.

Torgerson agreed he did not understand the relevance of discussing access when the issue at hand was assessing any environmental risks of creating a subdivision.

Because access to Mokoi Point requires travel through MPL-owned land, some commissioners worried that MPL could go back on their word to allow access. But Dathan Bicoy, MPL Molokai Operations, testified that access would never be denied.

Still others worried about the sort of visitor that would be granted access given the dangerous terrain – trails are steep and undeveloped and the area is subject to floods, landslides and rough surf. MLT requires visitors to sign a liability waiver before entering the land.

“We’d have to be assured that they know the territory,” MLT board member Davianna McGregor told the commission.

MLT board member William Akutagawa testified that once MLT owns the land it will open it up to school groups and researchers to study the land’s historical and geological significance.

A Complicated History
The debate over Mokio Point began back in 2006 when, in an effort to develop on La`au Point, MPL offered the land as a gesture of good faith to the community. While their plans for La`au fell through and MPL closed its operations on the island, its gift of Mokio Point proceeded.

“The whole deal started with a deal,” community members and activist Walter Ritte testified in his cautious support of MLT’s acquisition. “And it was a deal with someone we never trusted.”

MLT has tried to overcome the public’s lingering distrust in MPL as they work toward taking over Mokio Point.

“I come to you with humility in my heart,” Machado said. “We don’t have an agenda.”

Since MLT signed the letter of agreement with MPL in 2008, it has been busy surveying the land and planning for its eventual takeover, board members testified. MLT has also been occupied with the purchase of Kawaikapu on Molokai’s east end in December with funds from the state’s Legacy Land Conservation Program.

Haase said in an interview that MLT is now finalizing its public access policy for that land and hopes to have it open this summer.

Healthy Dialogue
Despite delaying their vote, MoPC voiced support for MLT’s takeover of the land from MPL.

“This is the kind of application that we dream about getting where somebody is coming forward [to] provide stewardship and conservation to our land,” said Commission Chair Steven Chaikin.

Other commissioners said they were just trying to cover all their bases.

“There have been times when this commission has kind of given people the benefit of the doubt and it turned around and bit us… We just want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” explained Commissioner Mikiala Pescaia.

Torgerson said in an interview that even though he may have a different opinion than the commission, “that’s the value of having a planning commission – to have reasonable people debate things and look at all sides of an issue, so I think is a healthy dialogue that we’ve been having.”

The commission is expected to vote on the matter at their next meeting on June 9.

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