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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, November 30, 2005

New law may help state join purchase of valley

By Will Hoover
Advertiser North Shore Writer


A state law passed this year raises the conveyance tax, which is paid at the time any property is sold, and dedicates 10 percent of collections for land conservation, providing money to the state, counties or other agencies seeking to purchase land that has environmental, cultural or other value.

The tax is expected to increase the Department of Land and Natural Resources' Land Conservation Fund to approximately $9 million a year.

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A controversial settlement proposal to split the 1,875-acre Waimea Valley between the city and New York investor Christian Wolffer took a twist yesterday, with a state representative weighing in with a proposal in which the state would help buy the valley.

Many who believe the North Shore valley is an invaluable cultural treasure worry that the settlement deal, which has received preliminary approval by the City Council, could open the valley to development.

State Rep. Brian Schatz, D-25th (Makiki, Tantalus), suggested yesterday that the state help to purchase the property through the Legacy Lands Act.

That act, signed into law this year to provide millions of dollars for land conservation, was intended for this sort of situation, said Schatz, who helped author the law.

"Waimea Valley is a perfect and appropriate use of these funds," he said.

The accumulated money is to be used for preserving precious resources such as Waimea Valley that are in jeopardy of being developed, Schatz said.

Because the law is new, the fund's balance is currently low. Schatz said the Legislature might have to consider paying for the land out of its general appropriation, which would be reimbursed by the solvent Legacy fund.

Schatz disputed the thought that the issue is exclusively "the city's problem."

"This is everybody's problem," he said. "We are all going to need to pitch in to fix it."

If the private sector, the city, the state and the congressional committee could each pay a fourth, Waimea Valley could be saved, he said.

Under the proposed settlement agreement, the city would keep the lower 300 acres of the valley, while Wolffer would get the unsurveyed upper 1,575 acres.

Last week prominent archaeologist Joseph Kennedy, who has studied the land's history, said the valley had been in the hands of kahuna nui, or Hawaiian religious elite, for some 900 years. Furthermore, he said, the portion going to Wolffer contains the intact, unsurveyed portion of the property.

"You don't know what you're giving away," Kennedy said.

Details of the proposed agreement were made behind closed doors and remain secret. Consequently, Schatz and others have said it's not possible to know the value of the property, which is zoned conservation land.

Wolffer became the principal owner of the land in the mid-1990s, saying he intended to keep it undeveloped. But he angered cultural and environmental groups when he tried to sell it as a private residence in 2000.

The city then initiated condemnation procedures and placed $5.1 million in escrow to buy the valley while Wolffer placed the property under bankruptcy protection.

City Council chairman Donovan Dela Cruz, who represents District 2, which includes Waimea Valley, said he had spoken to Schatz about the Legacy Lands idea and thinks it is important to consider all options.

But he added, "there are still a number of things that will occur before the city can look at what options there are."

Dela Cruz said he couldn't elaborate on what those things might be. But he was adamant that neither the city or state would likely ever allow Waimea Valley to be rezoned.

The condemnation process could end on Dec. 7 if the settlement is approved. Otherwise, it could conclude at some future date when the courts determine its outcome, he said.

Reach Will Hoover at whoover@honoluluadvertiser.com.