LIHUE — When Kauai County Councilwoman JoAnn Yukimura left Kauai for college in 1967, she had dreams of joining the Peace Corps and foreign services.
But several weeks into her first semester at Stanford, she had an awakening.
“I didn’t realize what a special place Kauai was,” Yukimura said. “I would come home and see what was happening in Honolulu and then I realized, ‘I don’t want Kauai to become like Honolulu or the Mainland.’”
Yukimura graduated from Stanford with a degree in psychology and went to law school at the University of Washington, focusing on environmental law.
She moved back home, took the bar and worked with residents of the Niumalu-Nawiliwili area to stop the building of condominiums.
“It was about coming home to keep Kauai,” she said.
She was elected to the council in 1976 on an anti-development platform.
After two terms with the council, she ran for mayor for the first time.
“I ran for mayor because I thought, ‘Once I get on the council, I can get things done,’” she said. “We passed an amendment to a building code which required solar water heaters on multi-family dwellings. But when we passed it, the mayor didn’t enforce it.”
She went back to the council for four more years. On her third attempt, Yukimura became mayor in 1988.
“I think we did a lot of innovative things,” she said. “We started the recycling and composting projects, did a bike ways plan, started to impact land use, and there were a lot of things thrown into my lap.”
Yukimura then had to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki in 1992.
“We recycled probably a bigger portion of our hurricane debris than any other jurisdiction in the United States, percentage-wise, because we separated the metal, wood and green waste,” she said. “We expanded the bus, which I started as a public transportation system, just a line between Kapaa and Lihue.”
Because of a lack of communication after the hurricane, rumors swirled about Yukimura.
“I had to send messages to KQNG radio and to the Water Department by bike,” she said. “(There were) rumors I was sending helicopters with supplies to the North Shore … which wasn’t true at all but was hard to address at that time.”
By 1994, the economy was still in recovery and people felt hotels should have been built, she said.
“That was one of the reasons I lost the election (in 1994) because I didn’t bring back the hotels fast enough,” she said.
She ran for County Council in 2002 and in 2010, where she continues to fight for affordable housing projects and find ways alleviate the transportation and traffic congestion issues facing the island.
“If we just continue to be primarily dependent on the automobile, we’re going to face a future like Oahu,” she said. “When we increase bus routes and frequency and duration, the ridership skyrockets.”
The obstacle, Yukimura said, is money.
“By increasing bus service, you’re supporting an increasing and growing economy,” she said. “It’s a huge economic boost and that’s why the business community around the country recognizes that.”
Over her time in office, Yukimura said she has helped provide 1,600 affordable homes on the island.
“Many … can’t buy a house,” she said. “It’s about supplying good rental housing, which we’ve done at Kalepa and Paanau, and there are many families living comfortably and well and they’re only spending 30 percent of their household income.”