Developer must improve gravesite plan
By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer
In a ruling that could delay construction of the Hokuli'a luxury homes project, a Kona circuit court judge yesterday ordered the developer to take greater steps to protect ancient burials and Native Hawaiian cultural sites.
Judge Ronald Ibarra told 1250 Oceanside Partners to submit a new burial treatment plan within 30 days, and ordered the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to identify and protect within 60 days any cultural practices associated with the grave sites in the 1,500-acre Big Island development near Kealakekua.
The judge said he would suspend all ground construction work and the issuance of any government permits if the orders are not completed by Jan. 17.
John De Fries, president of 1250 Oceanside Partners, said his firm could comply with the order within 21 days, but it might cost the company several million dollars if the state takes 60 days to comply with its order.
Ibarra cited numerous failures by the developer, the State Historic Preservation Division and Hawai'i County that had resulted in the disturbance and removal of burial and cultural sites from the massive project that includes a golf course, plans for 700 residential lots and a member's lodge.
The developer's original archaeological survey identified 408 historic sites, including 31 burial sites. But as construction proceeded, more than 100 new sites were discovered, along with 40 new burials containing the remains of at least 73 individuals.
Ibarra's decision noted several instances in which Oceanside and the state either ignored or subverted the law to keep the project moving, including leaving the Hawai'i Island Burial Council and cultural and lineal descendants out of the process of protecting burials.
The order also pointed to staff conduct that had compromised oversight. In one instance, the judge said, the developer donated $1,000 to the church of the state regulator responsible for monitoring the project. The developer also sponsored the staffer's girlfriend's canoe club. (The staffer has since resigned.)
Ibarra also said the state's lack of enforcement action had allowed Oceanside to avoid sanctions and penalties.
As for the county, its development agreement allowing construction of the Mamalahoa Highway bypass placed it in conflict of interest as regulator, and compromised its ability to implement the law, the judge wrote.
"The iwi are finally getting justice,'' said Moses Haia, Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation attorney. "It sends a clear message that there can be no shortcuts or substitutions for a comprehensive burial treatment plan before construction begins.''
De Fries, a Native Hawaiian who took over as Oceanside president a year ago, acknowledged that the company had made mistakes in the past.
"I'm pleased with the progress we have made in the last year,'' he said. "We have a lot of protocols in place now that far exceed what the judge might be expected from us.
"The biggest benefactor will be the iwi,'' he said.
Kai Markell, state Burials Program manager, said a lack of resources and manpower clearly had led to some of the problems.
"The project is so massive, it's overwhelming. Sometimes there's an inability to focus on what needs to be done,'' he said.