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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Friday, May 24, 2002

Developers must respect burial sites

It's too bad this didn't come up in time to reinforce the recent Forbes article blasting Hawai'i as a place to do business. Imagine the traction the magazine could have gotten from a 1,500-acre Big Island luxury residential development being delayed by a series of laws reflecting arcane Island sensibilities about mud, trails and old bones.

These laws are of the sort that make the folks at Forbes see red, the color of "the People's Republic of Hawai'i." But quite frankly, we wouldn't have it any other way. With a couple of caveats, these laws are — and must be — part of the cost of doing business in our state.

The caveats are that no one pretends these laws are perfect and can't be improved, and — very important — in no way are we prejudging the developer in instances where legal processes are incomplete. It's the principle that's important here: Even while our economy is hurting every bit as badly as Forbes asserts, a slavish attempt to allow development at any cost would cost us even more — the irreplaceable assets that make Hawai'i unique.

That's why we have laws that restrict erosion from construction projects, as the developers of the Hokuli'a project, midway between Keauhou and Kealakekua Bay, found out after a massive sediment spill. The run-off can foul and kill reefs.

Well, what is the point of building a resort community on a denuded shoreline? We believe protection of that shoreline must be part of the price of doing business in Hawai'i.

In places it's even hard to see, but we're proud that Ala Kahakai, the Trail by the Sea, is under state protection.

Some 82 miles of the trail cross private lands, and so, yes, the trail is likely to be something of a headache to developers and, yes, that also has to be part of the price of doing business in Hawai'i. So the Hokuli'a project ran into more problems when its machinery chewed up 100 yards of the trail.

Perhaps the most difficult restrictions for the folks at Forbes to understand or appreciate, however, might be those pertaining to ancient burials. We don't suppose contractors have much of a problem in Kansas when they encounter unmarked graves, but the ancient Hawaiians generally didn't mark their graves and yet they have — not unreasonably — strong concerns about disturbing them.

While burials are commonly found during excavation in many parts of the Islands, there are strict rules about how to handle them.

That's why there's a major flap about reported mishandling of human remains at the Hokuli'a site, including allegations that remains were stored in a paper bag in a shipping container for months and that bulldozers "obliterated" a burial site, smashing the bones.

To his credit, John DeFries, president of the developer, expressed shock at these problems and pledged to establish an independent organization to oversee his firm's archaeological program.

We think Hokuli'a is shaping up to be a fine development, a valuable asset for the Big Island, and we hope it proves profitable. But it faces investigation by state burial officials and possible court hearings in these burial matters. It's part of the price of doing business in Hawai'i.

Of course there are unneeded and unreasonable laws, regulations and red tape in Hawai'i, and we strongly advocate their improvement — but not their abandonment, because Hawai'i is unique and must remain that way.