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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 26, 2005

No 'open checkbook' for Waimea Valley

By Robbie Dingeman and Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writers

Mayor Mufi Hannemann said yesterday he backs efforts to purchase the front end of Waimea Valley but cautioned council members that the city shouldn't provide "an open checkbook."

Hannemann said he is a supporter of and "regular visitor" to the park and is sensitive to its environmental and cultural significance.

"But I really believe there is a limit to what the city can and should pay," Hannemann said at a news conference.

"I just hope that those that would want the city to preserve this recognize that we're not in a situation where we have deep pockets and there's an unlimited amount of money that we can pay for this."

It's clear that the Waimea Valley issue is a contentious one for the City Council. Yesterday, five of the nine council members requested that the proposed legal settlement be discussed in a special meeting at 2 p.m. Dec. 7, the same day as the council's last scheduled meeting of the year.

That is the deadline for the city to take action on the settlement offer or prepare to go to court for a trial scheduled to begin the week of Feb. 13.

Councilman Charles Djou, a key backer of the compromise, said that after Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz expressed reluctance to schedule a vote, council members pushed for the special meeting to make sure a vote was held.

Dela Cruz, who represents the North Shore area that includes the valley, was among the four members voting against the compromise in a committee vote last week.

"I voted 'no' in committee. I'll probably be voting 'no' on accepting the committee report," Dela Cruz said yesterday. If he did not poise it for a vote, Dela Cruz could kill the settlement offer by inaction.

Dela Cruz wants to see elements of the Waimea Valley Master Plan without any residential development and an emphasis on preservation to regulate "what's going to happen in the future for Waimea Valley."

All nine members met three times behind closed doors for more than six hours this month before voting to approve the legal settlement now before the city. The owner, Attractions Hawaii, gave the city a Dec. 7 deadline to agree to a deal whose details have remained largely confidential.

Then the council members in a closed-door committee meeting voted 5-4 to approve a compromise offer that would end the city's condemnation lawsuit of the 1,875-acre valley, keeping the front 300 acres of the valley while Attractions Hawaii would retain title to the other 1,500 acres toward the rear of the property.

But Djou sees the compromise settlement as the city's best chance to preserve key elements of the historic valley without risking the city's having to pay "tens of millions" more for the property. "We can't write a blank check," Djou said.

Djou was joined by council members Todd Apo, Ann Kobayashi, Rod Tam and Gary Okino in calling for the special meeting. Kobayashi voted against the settlement.

That puts Djou and the mayor in agreement on the basic issue.

Hannemann said: "I guess where I'm coming from, I'm hoping there's some kind of balance that will come out whether it's the council, or if it goes to the courts and the like."

The mayor said he has received calls from those who want the city to purchase the park, regardless of the price. "I'm sorry but we have other needs," he said.

He acknowledged that the council has earmarked $5.1 million for the purchase.

"Obviously, that may not be enough," he said. "But I don't know what ... that limit should be from the city's standpoint; it's just that I want to be real clear that this is not going to be an open checkbook that we're going to pay whatever it is to keep it the way it is forever and ever because we just can't afford it."

The mayor said he would be open to a partnership with the private sector. "Certainly, we want to exhaust every avenue," he said.

Hannemann also suggested that the state could play a role.

"This is something that could be of interest to them" he said. "They certainly have a lot more money than we do."

Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com and Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.