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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 27, 2002

City takes over valley

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser City Hall Writer

The city took possession of scenic Waimea Valley yesterday, a major step toward preserving the 1,875-acre valley on O'ahu's North Shore.

As a visitor attraction on the North Shore, Waimea Falls Adventure Park featured cliff divers at the valley's landmark cataract.

Advertiser library photo • Aug. 13, 2001

The city made the move after negotiating an agreement to have the present operator continue to run the park while officials work on a long-term plan for the valley, city Deputy Managing Director Malcolm Tom told The Advertiser.

It is the latest development in the acquisition of the property through condemnation, and the process is expected to continue over the coming months, Tom said.

The city has deposited $5.1 million in escrow with the courts — an amount that the City Council appropriated last year to help buy the land, he said. That money is equal to the assessed value of the property.

Because the city is taking over the property through condemnation, the court eventually will determine the purchase price, he said.

The valley includes a waterfall, streams, native forests, an arboretum with rare and endangered plans, significant archaeological sites and 1,500 acres of undeveloped land.

New York investor Christian Wolffer put the property up for sale in 2000, asking $25 million for the land, including the existing Waimea Falls Adventure Park. He later lowered the asking price to $19 million. In April, he placed the property under bankruptcy protection, which delayed the city's move to condemn until approval was granted in June.

Scott Foster, a founding member of the community-based preservation group Stewards of Waimea, was happy to hear about the long-awaited takeover.

Foster said the group is focused on "taking it back to the Hawaiian cultural and historic focus and of course, the invaluable collection of rare and near-extinct plants versus the adventure park concept with its demonstrated devastating results."

Those who favored preservation opposed the park's one-time use of all-terrain vehicles and a proposed zip-line ride that would have offered visitors a thrill-type adventure on a cable.

No 'exploitation'

Council Policy Chairman John Henry Felix said it's imperative to make preservation of the park a priority over its use as a visitor attraction. "I would be concerned if we're going to put more amusement activities that would give us a Disneyland environment," Felix said. "The name of the game is preservation, not exploitation."

During these difficult economic times, Felix remains hopeful that the money from park admission can generate enough for proper maintenance of the park. "This is going to be a daunting task," he said.

Proponents have backed the purchase as a rare opportunity to preserve the park and perpetuate public access to the area, but some have worried that the city could be taking on a liability in taking over the commercial park operation that hasn't been able to operate successfully.

Council Parks Chairman Steve Holmes described the move as "very exciting."

He said it's important to make the financial commitment to preserve the valley. "We would have seen a continued deterioration of all the rare and endangered plants in the area." Holmes said.

Tom said operation of the facility will continue with the operator, Waimea Management LLC. Park general manager Ray Greene could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Tom said the month-to-month lease with Waimea Management LLC could continue for a year. Waimea Valley LLC will pay the city 20 percent of profits. City spokesman Carol Costa said the city will also pay $100,000 a year to the operator to care for the park's rare plants.

'Seamless transition'

"The objective is to provide a seamless transition so there's no interference with the operations, no layoffs, no other changes," City Managing Director Ben Lee said.

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs had expressed an interest in buying the valley. Yesterday, OHA trustee John Waihe'e IV confirmed that the city had discussed its latest move with him. He traced that interest to the valley's significance as a historical, sacred cultural site.

Lee said the city hopes to form partnerships with OHA, the Audubon Society, the stewards group and others.

"We want to make sure that the general public has an opportunity to enjoy this landscape, botanic gardens, natural open space resource for generations," Lee said.

Waihe'e said OHA wants to remain involved in trying "to help shape the future use and preservation of the valley."

Community's views

Tom said the city will be requesting proposals from the community for a long-term management and operating plan. "We'll be interviewing, selecting and awarding a contract for the long-term operations."

Also yesterday, Lee said he signed the resolution passed last week by the City Council to begin the condemnation of private property in Waikiki for Outrigger Enterprises' $300 million resort redevelopment.

Lee said he signed the measure as acting mayor because Mayor Jeremy Harris was out of town.

The measure has sparked outrage from critics who say government is going too far in condemning private property to pave the way for a development by a private landowner.

Lee said he spoke to an Outrigger official who assured him that the company is continuing to talk to the owners of the remaining four properties. He said he's hopeful that negotiations will be successful so the city won't have to condemn. "We haven't triggered anything yet," Lee said. "That will take some time."

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8070.