Money tight for wide open spaces

Representatives from the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Fund Commission offered a report on progress and obstacles in 2006 at the County Council meeting yesterday in the historic County Building.

Speaking on behalf of the commission, Chair Beryl

Blaich and Commissioner Jean Nishida Souza summarized the recommendations made in the group’s second annual report for the mayor and council.

The overarching issue, Blaich said, is enhancing the commission’s ability to be flexible and act in a timely manner when land opportunities arise.

“Real estate is volatile,” she said. “We need to have enough resources to respond to opportunities.”

The 61-page report, which is now available online at www.kauai.gov/openspace, includes various recommendations to improve efficacy. It suggests clarifying the commission’s role, increasing the size of the fund, supporting and continuing existing staffing levels, and securing state and local commitments to maintain new properties.

Created in 2003, the nine-person commission advises the mayor and the council on how to best use money from the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Fund. The fund was created by voters the year before as a means of purchasing, preserving and protecting open space and access to it on Kaua‘i.

According to the report, there is a discrepancy between the commission’s codified role and the public’s and government’s expectations.

“This is a critical time for the commission and the county’s open space and public access program primarily due to the lack of explicit authorization to do more than make recommendations on projects for funding and to the actual size of the fund,” states the report. “There is a need to clarify the commission’s roles, increase the size of the fund to implement priority acquisitions and projects, and help to resolve issues.”

Blaich said there was strong support for change when voters created the fund in 2002, and there was a sense that the measure would protect the island from accelerated development in creating parks and preserves. But the reality has proven more challenging.

The mission is, in fact, to create a list of open spaces to consider for acquisition, but funding has not kept up with land prices. According to the report, “the fund lacks sufficient funds to purchase land, especially coastal properties.”

Currently 0.5 percent of revenue from property taxes is deferred to the fund. The report is recommending a $5 million appropriation or an increased contribution of 2 percent.

The fund now contains a total of about $1.3 million.

Jay Furfaro acknowledged a need for additional capital during the meeting and made a short presentation on using bonds to get cash flowing.

“Whether it’s $7 million, $9 (million) or $10 (million), there is a vehicle to get more funds to you immediately,” Furfaro said.

To date, the commission has not purchased any new lands. Instead, it has focused on working properties such as an expansion of public access at Black Pot Beach, according to the report.

Blaich emphasized at the meeting that the commission is also interested in opportunities that don’t cost money, such as changing land designations or uses to create more open space.

In order to find those opportunities, staffing levels need to be maintained, she said.

There are currently two paid positions: an open space/public access specialist and an open space/public access support clerk. The former is a contracted position, which the commission would like to see made permanent, as a big part of the job is developing relationships among a range of jurisdictions.

All council members in attendance — including Chair Bill “Kaipo” Asing, JoAnn Yukimura, Tim Bynum and Jay Furfaro — agreed that the commission is charged with important tasks that have great public benefit.

“Once you acquire these lands, they’re an asset forever,” Furfaro said.

Asing noted, however, that the presentation on the 2006 report did not highlight a list of roughly 16 properties that were deemed high priorities at the time of the commission’s inception.

“These are key. We’ve looked at it and it is taking time,” Blaich said.

The council will review the ordinance pertaining to the commission and bring proposed amendments to Blaich for feedback.

A workshop to gain public input will take place but has not yet been scheduled.

The commission meets the second and fourth Thursday of each month. The next meeting is scheduled for tomorrow from 1 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. at the Moikeha Building at the Lihu‘e Civic Center, 4444 Rice St., in meeting room 2A-2B. The report is on the agenda for discussion.

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