By Lee Catalana
It's a complicated situation at the Sylvester Foundation no-kill animal shelter, but one thing is clear: There is a very real possibility that more than 300 rescued animals will be homeless by August of this year.
Candy Lake runs the non-profit animal sanctuary on 20 acres of Waimanalo land leased from the state. That lease ends Aug. 9 and the Department of Land and Natural Resources is putting the lease up for auction to the highest bidder on June 30. Photos of the site are posted on the DLNR Web site.
"We have no other options," Lake said. "We kept thinking that everything was going to be fine. That's the problem. We counted on support that didn't come through."
Lake had hoped for intervention by Gov. Linda Lingle's office. She cites e-mails of support from Lingle's director of scheduling, Marcia Klompus.
Klompus says she, the governor and the head of the DLNR, Peter Young, did everything they could to help Sylvester Foundation, but that state law must be followed.
Said Klompus, "I felt really, really bad because everything she does is so well intentioned, but if you're on leased land, the reality of the whole situation is you have to follow the law, and the law is there for good reason."
State law is inflexible and does not make concessions for good intentions or higher purpose.
Lake established the nonprofit Sylvester Foundation on the Waimanalo land in 1996. She and a handful of dedicated volunteers tend to hundreds of animals that were unwanted and abandoned. Local veterinarians help out with spaying, neutering and medical care and several stores donate bags of pet food. The rest of the expenses are paid for by donations from animal lovers and out of Lake's pocket.
Lake's interaction with the animals at Sylvester trumps any scene from "Dr. Doolittle." She knows every individual little critter by name. She can tell one yellow-eyed black cat from all the half-dozen other yellow-eyed black cats. And you can tell that the animals absolutely love her. There are no complications there.
But, as Lake puts it, "It's a big mess and August is looming on the horizon."
Lake holds the lease with an estranged family member. In order to extend the lease in her name only, Lake would have to get the other lessee to sign off, but Lake says that person has refused.
In order to get a new lease, state law requires that she bid for the property at a public auction. Lake must also qualify in order to bid.
Lake is worried about being disqualified from bidding on the land and, if she does qualify, being outbid at the auction. She says she was in a four-year-long arbitration with the DLNR in a dispute over a land appraisal and subsequent lease rental hike. She worries that the dispute with the Land Division may be held against her.
"We're not forcing people off their property and we're not saying that she can't continue on," said DLNR Chairman Young. "If she's qualified and if she's the successful bidder, then great. She stays."
In a letter Young wrote in response to inquiries about Sylvester Foundation's lease, he said:
" ... These laws may appear restrictive, but they ensure that the lands are not leased to insiders for political, personal or other inappropriate reasons ... You will note that the property is part of a larger agricultural community and the lease requires intensive agricultural use. As is required for leases like this, state law (HRS 171-14.5) calls for a pre-qualification of each bidder noting he/she is a bona fide farmer."
DLNR Land Division Administrator Dede Mamiya says in the past, Waimanalo agricultural land leases have generated a lot of interest.
Though the fate of Sylvester on that land is yet undecided, the best solution may be to come up with a Plan B.
Mamiya says state land may not be the best place for an animal sanctuary.
"I encourage nonprofits to go find private lands because our laws are so restrictive, like the max 55 years, and we have to go out to auction, all those kinds of things, and it's there for a reason, to cut down on abuse, so we can't just say oh, you're a great tenant so we want to just extend your lease because we want to keep you there. That's what the private guys do."
Mamiya added: "Sometimes we get really frustrated because we should be able to operate like a private lessor, you know, and use our best judgment about these things. But unfortunately, that opens the door for abuse."
Lake is open to a Plan B, but as yet, none has materialized. She says she and the animals can make do on five or four, or even three, acres of land, and if a private landowner wanted them, they'd all be very grateful. But she's still holding out hope for some sort of intervention from the governor that will keep them on the Waimanalo property.
"Why can't you step in?" she asks. "Why can't you do something?"
Lee Cataluna's column runs Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Reach her at 535-8172 or firstname.lastname@example.org.