Westside parks held dear by residents

A crowded, lengthy and emotional meeting Monday evening at the Mo‘ikeha Building revealed residents’ deeply rooted attachment to two state parks on the Westside and, particularly, some 140 leased cabins there.

The state Legislature last session passed a measure that creates a one-time process to lease public lands for recreation residence use at Waimea Canyon and Koke‘e state parks. After giving existing leaseholders a chance to renew their leases, the legislation would open up a public auction process first to bidders who reside on Kaua‘i, then to state residents and finally to nonresidents.

Dozens of community members packed the meeting room — standing along the walls, sitting on the floor and spilling out the door — to testify before Gov. Linda Lingle’s Kaua‘i Community Advisory Council.

The nine-member appointed body was gathering public input on House Bill 2872, which requires the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to directly negotiate with all existing leaseholders of recreation residences.

After the more than two-hour hearing, the council unanimously voted to send a letter to the governor recommending she allow the bill to become law.

“The advisory council was moved by passionate testimony on both sides of the issue,” the governor’s Kaua‘i liaison, Laurie Yoshida, said yesterday. “While the advisory council voted to support the bill, they did have concerns about the bill and understood the desire by many local residents to open up the process. The council felt that by opening up the recreational residences to auction, you run the risk of inflating the prices so that most local families could not afford the leases and that Koke‘e would be lost to non-residents.”

The Lingle administration is undergoing a comprehensive review process of the bills that the state Legislature passed last session.

The governor has until Monday to notify the Legislature of any bills she is considering vetoing. She must take action on all bills by July 8. Any bills not signed or vetoed will automatically become law without her signature.

Marsha Erickson, the executive director of Hui o Laka, was among those who testified in support of House Bill 2872.

“It will go a long way in preserving the cultural landscape of Koke‘e and Waimea Canyon state parks … the great treasure of all the people of Hawai‘i,” she said.

Residents of diverse backgrounds recalled growing up on Kaua‘i and taking family trips to Koke‘e where they picked lilikoi, harvested plums, hunted pigs, hiked and camped.

The two state parks hold commanding views of deep canyons, remote coastlines, lush valleys and cascading waterfalls.

“Please, I beg you, don’t take away the last piece,” Kapa‘a resident Robert Cremer said.

He, like other residents who commented before the council, considers Koke‘e one of the few unspoiled places on the island.

“The ‘we’ people should take over,” Cowboy Molina said. “The ‘me’ people should be gone.”

The Lihu‘e resident said lawmakers should put a stipulation in the bill that says the cabins shall be shared with the local people.

His fear, he said, is wealthy owners buying up the leases, which the bill states must be for a period of at least 20 years, and then only visiting the cabins a few days a year.

Molina said he would rather see leaseholders share the cabins with numerous families, as many currently do.

Yoshida estimated 100 people attended the meeting and 29 testified.

The council members are James Anakalea, Stewart Burley, Linda Collins, Vilamor Galiza, James Itamura, Maka‘ala Ka‘aumoana, Barbara Smith, Matt Takata (chair) and Leo Trinidad. Collins abstained in her vote due to a conflict of interest.

“The concerns raised by those that testified that the council agreed with include current leaseholders that are non-residents of Kaua‘i, participation by any leaseholders in community work days and other projects in the park, and the residency requirements as leases turn over within the 20-year time frame,” Yoshida said. “The advisory council hopes that these issues can be addressed by the Koke‘e State Park Advisory Council set up by this legislation or by requiring membership in a leaseholder association as part of the lease terms.”

Attorney Dan Hempey, who represents 27 cabin owners in a pending lawsuit, said there will be “quite a few” existing leaseholders who will be unable to afford the renegotiated lease prices, which under the bill would be based on current market rates.

“We don’t know how the numbers will shake out,” he said, estimating some 40 to 60 leases may open up.

State Rep. Roland Sagum, D-16th District, has said there is a mix of some 25 vacant cabins and lots that will be auctioned off in the initial go-round.

“If this goes up to the open market, Koke‘e as we know it is gone,” Kaua‘i County Councilman Mel Rapozo said, echoing other residents’ concerns over the uncertainty of what the fair market rate will be for the cabins.

The lawmakers need to go back and do their job, said Patrick Pereira, 59, of Kekaha.

“Why wouldn’t I want a chance to bid on it?” he said, adding that the host culture should have been asked for its advice on how to handle the matter.

Scott Sagum, who managed the lodge in Koke‘e from 2004 to 2007, said it is critical for legislation to be put in place that keeps the people there.

“It’s a matter of life and safety as well as maintaining the community,” he said. “The value of Koke‘e is the accumulated wisdom.”

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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