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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, November 11, 2001

A native approach to 'Growing Smart'

By Beadie Kanahele Dawson

In May 1997 when I first challenged the questionable activities of five Bishop Estate trustees in court — five wealthy, enormously powerful and influential appointees who oversaw a $10 billion educational trust — people said I was crazy and was being set up to get hurt.

The highrises of Waikiki have made Hawai'i's history-rich perennial top attraction into a generic "concreted" resort not much different from any number of overbuilt tourist traps in many other locales.

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A powerful labor leader predicted they would never be removed.

Well, they were right. It wasn't easy. I was crazy. It started out simply but became more complex and difficult than any case I've ever worked on before, and, as it turned out, pro bono. It was "a setup": I received death threats, insults, curses and betrayal. I did not remove the trustees.

Instead, that old adversary that we love to hate, the Internal Revenue Service, did. It conducted a five-year audit — so difficult, complex and thorough that I take back every negative comment I ever made about that agency. The IRS people, among others, became my heroes.

Today, we're looking for some serious new heroes for "Growing Smart" in Hawai'i.

We have awakened to find that Hawai'i's nightmare is not coming. It is here:

  • The contagious growth and Coney-Islanding of Waikiki, Kailua-Kona, Kihei and Hanauma Bay.
  • A population of 1.2 million and almost 7 million visitors and counting.
  • Gridlock highways and roads.
  • Bitter battles for water.
  • Failing infrastructure, and more.

Sadly, the nightmare has just begun.

Hawai'i is islands with finite resources. We have limited water, land and sewage-disposal capabilities. We need to be pioneers for our own future as well as the future of our children and our heirs. They will eventually have to take initiatives far more drastic than our current ones, all to resolve and repair the ongoing destruction of Hawai'i.

"Growing Smart" is growing Hawai'i's economy and its community without continuing to destroy ourselves. It is the opposite of growth for strictly personal, corporate and political gain. How do we do that? Who is going to make smart growth happen? We are. We can grow smart with our voices, our talents and our votes. We will all benefit, or suffer, in direct proportion to our efforts.

Suggested reading
 •  What: "Natural Capitalism"
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I am going to try to give you some Native Hawaiian answers to some of these questions. My answers may not be what you are expecting.

Although Native Hawaiians no longer have their country, much of our ancient beliefs about caring for our land, "malama 'aina, remain firmly ingrained in us, despite the sometime clash or contradiction that those old beliefs have in our modern society.

Malama 'aina or caring for the land is a complex concept. For the Western newcomers, land was and is a concept totally different from the Native Hawaiian regard for land. In the Western understanding, land is owned and possessed. Land is something plucked out of our total environment for the owners' use.

In new thinking, we tend to regard land as ours exclusively. Mine. Not yours.

For Native Hawaiians there is wholeness, unity and spirituality in our land. This bond with Hawai'i's land determines our view of our land, and the responsibility that goes with it.

Even today, for Native Hawaiians, the concept of "malama 'aina," or caring for and preserving Hawai'i's land, embodies all of the above: love (aloha), caring and preserving (malama), protecting (ho'omalu) the land ('aina) for God (Akua).

The gridlock that bedevils drivers in Hawai'i is symptomatic of a place where the infrastructure cannot absorb much more growth.

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A'ole Ho'opau. Waste not. Ancient (pre-contact) Hawaiians were true environmentalists. They took resources (water, wood, land) only as they could use them. Native Hawaiians terraced lo'i (taro patches) to utilize and re-utilize water. What they took, they replenished and replanted for future use.

Senate Bill No. 1473, known as the "Smart Growth" Planning Bill, was passed earlier this year by the Legislature but vetoed by the governor because, he said, existing laws already allow the Office of Planning to provide for the concerns and initiatives called for in the legislation.

I believe there were some good intentions and excellent potential in SB 1473 that are appropriate for Hawai'i's future that we would do well to follow:

  • Implement new unconventional growth (using my words) and development practices.
  • Reduce public costs of growth and development.
  • Preserve the character and economic productivity of established communities and rural areas.

I would like to believe that the authors of the bill were calling for a new kind of growth, utilizing unconventional development practices, and for changes that are systemic and not piecemeal.

However, for all the great issues raised and goals set forth, the bill missed some basics that are screaming for attention in Hawai'i.

  • Historic preservation was not mentioned. I hope this wasn't deliberate. We have demolished and paved over or "concreted" so many of Hawai'i's historical buildings and sites, particularly in Honolulu and Waikiki, that we've lost much of that "different," "special" and "unique" look that has characterized Hawai'i ever since Western contact.

Instead, we are wall-to-wall steel and glass buildings that obliterate our beautiful oceans from view and are frightening duplicates of multitudes of West Coast and Florida resort towns. We need to preserve and enhance what's left of our unique history and appeal.

  • There was no provision to encourage the state and Honolulu to bank land for the future (and to re-establish our beauty). The experience of Majorca in the Mediterranean is instructive.

Majorca had the same profile as Hawai'i. It was a highly popular and attractive resort area, mostly for Europeans, with out-of-control building and a resulting loss of vistas and beaches. The result was a serious decline in its tourism industry. Then Majorcans took action.

First they declared a moratorium on further building. Then they began a gradual buy-back plan that included demolition as well as establishment or restoration of beautiful beach parks and Spanish architecture. In response, tourism rebounded and flourished.

  • Perhaps the biggest puka in the bill was the lack of a mandate to create a vision for Hawai'i (with community input, of course).

What do we want to look like in 10 years? Fifty years? One hundred years? Hawaiian? American? Just another American/West Coast/Florida resort?

What we plan today will be tomorrow's salvation — or tomorrow's nightmare.

Sometimes a lawsuit is a wake-up call. Last year when the Hawai'i Tourism Authority announced its goal of bringing more millions of visitors to Hawai'i, the Sierra Club sued the agency, asking that it be required to perform an environmental assessment of the effect of increased tourism.

My first reaction was annoyance that the Sierra Club would file such a suit, apparently to prevent the authority from doing its job. However, as statistics on our economy and our community health emerge, I'm beginning to think the suit not only has merit but also may be a blessing in disguise.

Seiji Naya at the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism has authorized a capacity study to evaluate the kinds of tourism Hawai'i will offer and the demands that such increases will make upon Hawai'i's infrastructure.

Naya thinks we may be able to identify other economic bases. In his opinion, we have reached the limit. Tourism has reached a saturation point; the growth rate has flattened. I think he's right.

We must get real about our potential. We are an island community, not a California or prairie community that can simply expand and move out into undeveloped areas to accommodate needs. We cannot continue to give out limitless permits, including land, zoning, vehicle, fishing and building licenses, to use up our scarce resources without thinking of the consequences.

Somewhere we must draw the line. We must begin to regard our land, our 'aina, with some of the same reverence the Hawaiians do.

Recently, Bill Moyers' "Earth on Edge" documentary on PBS television was too close to our Hawaiian scene for comfort. It was haunting. The message: If our global community continues to expend and not replenish our ecosystems, over the next 30 years planet Earth is doomed. Hawai'i should not accept this sentence of doom. Let's begin to view our Islands and world differently and take initiatives that are more holistic, and so begin the slow turn-around.

Last spring, the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco asked me to give a presentation on Hawaiian sovereignty. I was amazed at members' interest in what many consider an esoteric subject. I was also amazed at their interest in continuing a dialogue. In addition, bank president Bob Parry's remarks confirmed Naya's prediction that "Economic diversification in Hawai'i, noting high-tech industry advances, may offer a buffer to Hawai'i's downturn in tourism."

Growth is defined and measured by Americans in terms of higher, more, larger, bigger — usually in terms of numbers, quantities and scale.

Perhaps we need to redefine growth in other terms: improved quality, higher-grade, upgraded or even world-class products, accommodations and services. High-end tourism. Not more, but better. Perhaps we need to begin to think in Native Hawaiian terms: replace, replant and plan for tomorrow.

Sadly, businesses and corporations tend to be oriented toward immediate gratification. We feel we must satisfy the bottom line and the stockholders first with projections of profits for the next five years.

We're like Scarlett O'Hara: "I'll think about that tomorrow." But tomorrow is too late.

We generally regard development as utilizing large unused areas and building for density. Trouble is, what we call unused is usually the agricultural open space or breathing space that a large residential and visitor population desperately needs.

But we could re-define "development" in a more Hawaiian way, where we restore, re-use differently, tear down and rebuild for lower density with higher quality. Dare we begin to design buildings that are more compatible with a Hawaiian island? Dare we not?

Does anyone, looking at all the pavement and concrete around us, doubt that we have not practiced "malama 'aina" in Hawai'i over the past 100 years?

Although high-tech is alive and developing in Hawai'i, globalization began in Hawai'i more than 150 years ago. Hawai'i was recognized in the family of nations as an independent nation. The kingdom had five treaties with the United States, then a foreign nation. In addition, Hawai'i had similar treaties with 15 other nations. Most of them were European countries with an interest in the Pacific. There were Hawaiian consuls in 90 ports around the world.

Although globalization is not new to Hawai'i, my concern is that in our rush to enter the global market-place of this century, off-island investors may not agree with our vision. We may lose the very character and characteristics that have made us so appealing to so many for so long.

Let's hope that we can truly begin a process of Growing Smart in Hawai'i that will ensure our future's well-being.

• • •

Sept. 11 postscript

The unthinkable has happened. The American nightmare caused by terrorists left countless numbers grieving and fearful and vaguely insecure about our future and our economy. But not for long. We are survivors.

No one appreciates disaster as a teacher, but it certainly is a short-cut to learning. We demonstrated that after Pearl Harbor. Americans rallied magnificently and became united, focused and dedicated to winning a war that we did not begin. We will do it again.

We all have the ability, and a fortuitous opportunity, to make Hawai'i whole again. How do we do that in today's circumstances? We grow Hawai'i once again, but this time we "Grow Smart." Some suggestions:

1. Don't wait. Collectively envision now what we want to be in the future. Just another Ameri-can/West Coast/Florida clone? I think not. We can't compete with less-expensive, more-accessible destinations that also have beaches and beautiful landscapes.

What else? A romantic Hawaiian paradise for all? Why not?

2. Government cannot be a cure-all. If it tries, we'll surely end up with more debt and more taxes, neither of which we can afford. Everyone needs to be part of the solution. Privatization can be a win-win proposition.

3. Forget the political labels and camps. Work in bipartisan teams.

4. Watch out for solutions from nonresident investors. They can sell their interests tomorrow and leave their mistakes behind for residents. Make aloha a part of everything we build and do.

This article was presented to the Hawaii Society of Corporate Planners in June and has been modified for the larger community's readership. Beadie Kanahele Dawson, chief executive and general counsel of Dawson International and The Dawson Group, is a former state deputy attorney general and was legal counsel to Kamehameha Schools. She is working with Hawai'i's congressional delegation and staff on the Native Hawaiian recognition bill.