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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 8, 2005

Council votes 9-0 to kill Waimea deal

By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer

WAIMEA VALLEY Q&A

Q. Why is Waimea Valley important?

A. The 1,875-acre North Shore valley is noted for its scenic beauty, cultural and archaeological significance, rare and endangered plants and unspoiled ocean-to-mountain environment.

Q. What is the fight about?

A. Land ownership. The city in 2001 moved to acquire the entire valley via condemnation. Landowner Christian Wolffer proposed a settlement in which the city would own the valley’s lower 300 acres and he would own the rest, prompting concerns that Wolffer would seek to develop the upper portion of the valley.

Q. What happened yesterday?

A. The City Council voted 9-0 to reject the proposed settlement, reversing a 5-4 vote on Nov. 21 in which the council gave preliminary approval to the settlement.

Q. What changed from Nov. 21?

A. The National Audubon Center yesterday told council members that it is committed to preservation of the valley, and is working with the state Office of Hawaiian Affairs and other partners to pull together the needed money to help buy the land. Several OHA trustees testified in favor as well.

Q. What’s next?

A. The city prepares to go to trial the week of Feb. 13. The court would determine the fair market value of the valley.

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In a stunning example of people power, five Honolulu City Council members changed their minds yesterday and voted against an agreement to split Waimea Valley between the city and New York investor Christian Wolffer.

Although the vote was unanimous, 9-0, the decision really went to the parade of more than six dozen speakers who told the council in no uncertain terms that the community was ready to take its chances in court.

The speakers were backed up by the Audubon Society and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which pledged to come up with the money needed to match whatever price a court ruling decrees. The rejection of the deal yesterday means the next move is a February court date.

Not one person who spoke yesterday at Honolulu Hale was in favor of accepting the Wolffer deal, which they feared could lead to development of the 1,875-acre valley.

"Don't settle, don't settle, don't settle," Nancy John of the North Shore Outdoor Circle told the council.

"This is what the people want."

North Shore resident Linda Bard added, "I would like you to listen to what is being said today."

State Department of Land and Natural Resources director Peter Young also offered his agency's assistance. Young pointed out that come what may, the DLNR would have the final say on what can be done with Waimea Valley, which is zoned conservation land.

"With the overwhelming opposition that's been expressed here, it would be difficult for the Land Board to even consider issuing a permit for any use in the back of the valley," he said.

FATEFUL DATE

Amid the outpouring of public sentiment, Councilman Nestor Garcia one of the four who voted against the preliminary settlement agreement last month said O'ahu now had another reason to remember Dec. 7.

Garcia said Dec. 7, 2005, would be remembered as a day when people came together to make their will known, and put their trust in elected officials to make the right choice.

"By showing up and expressing your opinion on this issue so important to, not just yourself, not just for the people of Hawai'i, but for those future generations not yet born, you have made a difference," Garcia said. "And I applaud you."

Councilman Charles Djou had led the effort to accept the settlement, saying it would lead to arbitration and the city's best option, considering its weak financial position. He said the events of the past few days made him change his mind.

"I have long been concerned over the finances of making the numbers work on this," he said. "We have long been looking for a white knight, and I think we have found it in the Audubon Society."

"I still have concerns that there are a number of unknowns as to how the Audubon Society is going to make the financial numbers work."

But he said that the Audubon Society's commitment, coupled with the financially flush Office of Hawaiian Affairs' pledge to back any effort to purchase and protect the valley, won him over.

'CITY CAN'T LOSE ON THIS'

"I think William McCorriston, Wolffer's attorney, has run circles around the city's legal counsel," said attorney James Case, who had done pro bono work for the Stewards of Waimea Valley, a group that has fought for years to keep the valley intact.

"But the city can't lose on this. It has a good hand, and they should play it in court."

McCorriston, spokesman for Wolffer, had been silent until yesterday because of a gag order preventing him from discussing the case. But he had plenty to say after the outcome.

"Our primary objective right now is to prepare for trial," McCorriston said.

He said he planned to contact Mayor Mufi Hannemann, whom he praised as having acted fairly and honorably throughout all negotiations.

McCorriston reserved his ire for National Audubon Society President John Flicker, whose testimony McCorriston watched on television.

Flicker flew in from New York last week on short notice to try to broker a way for his organization to facilitate a financial package in concert with other public and nonprofit agencies and organizations interested in protecting the valley.

"This resolution could open the door to development in the valley. We don't want any possibility of that happening," Flicker said. "This settlement should be voted down, which would give all of us time to come together and negotiate a settlement price that's acceptable."

McCorriston seemed most upset by Flicker's statement to the council that Wolffer's claims for legal damages were groundless and that, in fact, the investor had stood to make a windfall off the settlement deal.

As for his client, McCorriston said Wolffer's reaction to the news was one of relief.

"He had a lot of seller's remorse about making that (settlement) proposal. So he is actually quite comfortable with the decision," McCorriston said.

"He's always felt, and I agree with him, that he has a strong hand of cards to play at the trial, and that his ultimate wish is to have the land back."

ACQUIRED LAND IN 1996

Wolffer acquired the valley in 1996 when he became principal owner of Attractions Hawai'i, which owned the valley and Sea Life Park. Wolffer sold Sea Life Park, but kept the valley, promising to leave it intact.

He tried to sell it four years later as a private residence, but environmental groups argued that the valley is a precious cultural treasure that had been occupied by ancient Hawaiians for hundreds of years.

Much of the valley's lower 300 acres which would have gone to the city are marked by ancient cultural sites. However, none of the 1,575 acres that would have gone to Wolffer under the agreement have been surveyed.

To ensure the valley would remain undeveloped, the city initiated condemnation proceedings. It put $5.1 million, the valley's assessed value in 2001, in escrow; Wolffer has indicated that he considers the valley to be worth at least $18 million.

Waimea park seller Attractions Hawaii, headed by Wolffer, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 to prevent Bank of Hawaii from foreclosing on the property and selling it at auction. The bankruptcy has since been terminated.

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.


Correction: Attractions Hawai'i, the owner of Waimea Valley Adventure Park, filed for bankruptcy in 2001 to prevent Bank of Hawaii from foreclosing on the property and selling it at auction. A previous version of this story incorrectly described the bankruptcy filing and the circumstances surrounding it.