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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 17, 2005

Waimea Valley preservation at issue

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

The City Council yesterday discussed a settlement offer that would change the future of Waimea Valley, although it's not clear how because details of the proposal remain confidential.

All nine members of the City Council met behind closed doors to hear about a proposed legal settlement of the city's move to condemn the 1,875-acre valley on O'ahu's North Shore. They plan to discuss the matter further today.

Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, who represents the valley as part of his North Shore district, presided over yesterday's special meeting.

Although he declined to reveal how the discussions went, Dela Cruz said he is aware of the valley's unique significance. "Waimea Valley is a national treasure," he said. "It's special."

The valley includes a scenic waterfall, streams, native forests, a world-class botanical garden with rare and endangered plants, significant archaeological and cultural sites, and some 1,500 acres of undeveloped land.

While details of the proposed settlement were not made public, it was clear from testimony before the special meeting that concerns focused on the potential development of the valley.

Even with the short notice, 10 people testified, urging the council to find a way to preserve the valley.

Most noted the valley's significance as the island's last intact ahupua'a, an ocean-to-mountain land designation of an ecosystem dating to ancient Hawai'i.

Scott Foster, of Stewards of Waimea Valley, said the last ahupua'a on the island deserves to be protected from the possibility that a chunk of the land could be subdivided and sold for residential properties.

"I cannot imagine anyone buying a home in Waimea Valley," Foster said.

Mayor Mufi Hannemann took the rare step of calling the City Council into "an executive session of the Committee of the Whole to consider a confidential offer of settlement" in the Waimea condemnation case.

In his letter to Dela Cruz, Hannemann said a Dec. 7 deadline for council action on the settlement called for urgency. The council's last meeting of the calendar year falls on Dec. 7.

If no settlement is reached by then, the city would have to prepare to go to trial the week of Feb. 13, said deputy corporation counsel Don Kitaoka.

In 2000, owner and investor Christian Wolffer put the property up for sale for $25 million. Wolffer later lowered the price to $19 million.

In 2002, the city took possession of the valley as a first step to condemnation. The city then deposited more than $5.1 million in escrow with the courts, an amount equal to the assessed value of the property and to what the City Council in 2001 had appropriated to help buy the land. But the final sales price has always been subject to a court decision.

Diana King, who had worked for the Audubon Center, which has been managing the nature park in the valley, said she understands the city's need to balance economic issues with preservation.

If the price had soared to $100 million? "I agree, now is not the time," she said. But if the cost was closer to $10 million? "I'm almost sure there's a way," she said.

Betty Jenkins, a kupuna who has volunteered at the park and served on the Audubon stewardship board, said commercial residential development of the valley would be wrong.

"It would be like dividing a family," Jenkins said. "It would be a destruction. It would never be the same."

Jenkins said the impact would be felt beyond Native Hawaiians like herself and reach into the community as a whole. "To do so would kill our spirit," she said.

But City Councilwoman Barbara Marshall asked whether some prices for the property would be too high. Although the city set aside $5 million, a proposed settlement decided by the court could go higher, she said.

Dela Cruz said the valley should be preserved, and the city should follow master plans submitted by each community. The Waimea master plan, adopted in 2001, highlights cultural significance, educational value and preservation.

Would subdividing part of the valley for luxury homes fit that vision? "There's no residential" envisioned in that plan, Dela Cruz said.

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.

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