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Molokai Veterans Go to Court

Building permit still not granted.

By Catherine Cluett, Special to the Dispatch

The Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans are taking their building permit woes to court. After trying to build a veterans center for nearly four years, the group decided if an unconditional building permit had not been given by last Friday, they would pursue a lawsuit against the county in federal court. Veterans Commander Larry Helm said no word had been received from county officials, and the suit would be filed sometime this week.

“They give us no alternative; enough is enough,” said Helm. “How much can you get slapped in the face and turn the other cheek?”

The project has been delayed over concerns that not enough water flows through the current waterline in case of fire. The county Department of Water Supply has not signed off on the building permit because the 4-inch waterline serving the site on Wharf Road does not meet their standards. The Fire Department, however, signed off on the building permit on back in December.

Currently, both departments must review building permit applications, but they use different fire flow standards, mayor’s executive assistant Roy Silva told the veterans during a previous trip to Maui. Fire Department calculations are based on the national fire code, while the Department of Water Supply bases their standards on national insurance code, Silva said. The Fire Department requires at least 1,250 gallons per minute on site. The Molokai Veterans Center tested with a water flow of 1,650 gallons per minute.

More Disappointment
Last week, several veterans traveled to Maui to attend a County Council meeting of the Water Resource Committee. The committee discussed a change in county code that would switch the authority for fire flow regulations from the Department of Water Supply to the Fire Department, allowing the veterans to build their center. A vote on the matter, however, was deferred. Helm said he found out at the meeting that the code change has already come before the council six times previously.

County officials offered veterans an agreement that would allow them to begin construction on the 3,000-square-foot building without the permit, but would not allow them to occupy the center until the permit is resolved. Veterans Caring for Veterans’ Maui-based attorney James Fosbinder advised the group to reject the offer because they would have to cover all possible legal expenses “if anyone ever sues the county on a claim having to do with the county’s refusal to allow use of the building.”

Fosbinder also urged veterans to consider the long history of the project – about four years – and the recent disputes that have further put the center on hold.

The Suit
In a May meeting with veterans on Molokai, Fosbinder said this type of case falls under the legal term “exaction,” often called extortion. In such a case, a developer or builder has to pay for some infrastructure themselves.

“They’re asking you to build a pipe that will benefit [all nearby] land owners,” explained Fosbinder, standing at the site of the future center. “I would dearly like to represent you on this.”

Fosbinder, in a phone interview Thursday, also cited misleading actions of the county as grounds for the suit.

“This is twice that the county has put out press release that matter was settled,” said Fosbinder. “That’s dirty tricks, like from the Nixon era. It’s unbelievable.”

County Efforts
On July 30, Maui County issued a press release announcing that the county Department of Public Works will begin work on a portion of the Molokai Drainage System project in Kaunakakai that “includes the installation of a replacement waterline. The waterline service will include the proposed Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans building site.” Construction is expected to begin in October of this year, according to the release.

“We’re pleased that this part of an existing Public Works project can be accelerated to help meet the needs of our Molokai veterans,” said Mayor Charmaine Tavares in the release.

However, Helm said they don’t trust that it will actually happen. “They keep saying it’s going to happen but it never does,” he said.

“I think it’s unfortunate that [the veterans] want to pursue a lawsuit,” said county spokesperson Mahina Martin. “Once we enter into litigation it’s a completely different realm.”

Martin said the county would proceed with the Public Works waterline even though the veterans plan to take the case to court.

“I’m not sure why they would do that when we are going proceed with the Public Works project,” Martin said. “We have been trying to work with [the veterans] diligently for the past few months.”

The Mayor’s executive assistant, Roy Silva, declined to comment when reached by phone on Thursday.

“I don’t want to go to court,” Helm said, “but it’s the only remedy left to protect this whole process in which we believe we have been wronged.”

Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans have lost 35 members since the group began plans to build a center four years ago. The organization currently operates out of a 250-square-foot storefront in Kaunakakai.

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