Waimea Falls Park facing permits fight
By Yasmin Anwar
Advertiser Staff Writer
Little by little over the past decade, operators of Waimea Falls Park have made changes to the sluggish North Shore tourist stop without getting the necessary permits.
Now, the park is preparing to shift from private to public ownership. It faces a morass of paperwork as it tries to backtrack and make official 44 projects that were built without either a city permit, a state permit or both.
The effort to bring Waimea Falls Park into compliance with state and city laws has triggered suspicion among environmentalists, who fear that despite the city's bid to take over the property and keep it open to the public as conservation land, political deal-making eventually will turn the 1,875-acre preserve into a full-scale amusement park, or worse.
"What we're talking about here is the key to the future of Waimea: whether it becomes a developer's dream or stays the way it was meant to be with botanical gardens, cultural sites and wildlife," said Scott Foster, a spokesman for the Stewards of Waimea Valley community group.
Donald Clegg, a former land use and planning director for the city, has been hired by the park to process a special management area permit that will cover long-unapproved structures such as a ticket booth, trailers, portable restrooms, the Jungle Trek playground and a pump that boosts the waterfall when the pressure is low.
The all-terrain vehicle ride and paintball range, which didn't have permits, have been phased out.
Randall Fujiki, the city's director of planning and permitting, said his division did not cite the park for lack of compliance because no one complained.
He said there's no reason to fine the park for permit violations because none of the unapproved structures posed safety threats or affected the shoreline.
But some environmentalists say the park should be punished for flouting permit laws, and want an investigation into whether the unapproved facilities have harmed archaeological sites, plants and wildlife.
Hawai'is Thousand Friends calls the maneuvering for "after-the-fact" approvals of additions at the park a "wholesale abuse" of the system, in its response to Clegg's draft environmental assessment. "Not obtaining a permit before a project (has) begun closes all opportunities to discuss adverse impacts to the environment," the organization stated.
Ray Greene, the park's general manager, says the park is cleaning up its permit violations so its owner doesn't run afoul of real estate disclosure laws when the property changes hands.
"We're trying to get any violation or irregularity that has occurred in the past taken care of," he said.
Besides, he and others point out, no major development can occur without a lengthy, public permitting process.
But such assurances have done little to allay the concerns of conservationists, who have monitored changes at the park since New York developer Christian Wolffer took ownership in 1996.
Fueling their suspicion is Mayor Jeremy Harris' apparent reluctance to meet with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Audubon Society, both of whom want to be involved in plans for Waimea Falls Park.
Wolffer put the park up for sale last August for $25 million, and later placed it under bankruptcy protection. Harris and the Honolulu City Council have since moved to take over the property, through condemnation if necessary, and have set aside $5.2 million for the acquisition.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs has moved to make an identical bid for the property.
Insiders are betting that the city will win the bidding war, and Clegg is helping clear the way for that transaction.
Clegg, a former pollster for Harris, says the permit problems predate the current owner, and need to be fixed. But he said the debate should focus on the area addressed in the permit application, and not meander into the park's cultural significance.
"They want us to do an archaeological survey of the whole 1,800 acres, and to talk about the activities and whether they're a proper use of the park," he said. "This is not the time or place to deal with questions about the cultural use of the park."
Still, the preserve has been elevated to sacred status by Hawaiians and conservationists, many of whom advocate staunch restrictions on activities in the area.
The Waimea Valley is O'ahu's last intact ahupua'a (land that stretches from the uplands to the sea), and was home to Hawaiian priests from at least the 11th century.
After Kamehameha the Great conquered O'ahu in 1797, he gave the valley to his adviser, high priest Hewahewa.
It remained in the hands of high priests until the Great Mahele, when crown lands were divided among the maka'ainana. The area turned into fishing and farming land in the 1800s, and was leased by a subsidiary of Castle & Cooke as a cattle ranch a century later.
The Bishop Corp. acquired the land in 1971, and under Charles Pietsch III, it opened its gates to the public in 1975. It went on to become O'ahu's third most popular tourist destination. Its 1974 permit application described its mission as creating a world-class botanical garden and wildlife sanctuary and protecting Hawaiian cultural sites.
At its peak in the late 1980s, the park saw 600,000 visitors a year. But attendance declined in the 1990s. In 1996, the attraction was saved from the auction block by Wolffer, a German whose group, Euro Investors, took on the $12 million Bank of Hawaii loan taken out by the Pietsch-owned Attractions Hawai'i.
Despite attempts to lure visitors with adventure attractions, attendance did not improve.
"It's been a money loser ever since Wolffer got it," Clegg said. As for the park's future, he said he doubts that development will sprout. But he doesn't have a crystal ball.
"First of all, nobody wants a hotel, and that's not permitted under the laws, Clegg said. "But in the broader sense, anything is possible. All legislators have to do is pass a law that says there can be development. The threat is always there."