Pagoda crumbling amid dispute
By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer
By James Gonser
As the 116-foot tall landmark pagoda in Honolulu Memorial Park slowly deteriorates, the legal battle for control of the cemetery continues, four years after the former owners filed for bankruptcy.
First Hawaiian Bank in November filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court and froze the account of Kyoto Gardens Park, the fundraising arm of the cemetery. The bank is asking the court to decide who are the legitimate directors of Kyoto Gardens — City Councilman Rod Tam and businessman Vic Hejmadi, or a group of five cemetery niche and plot owners.
Both groups claim to have been duly elected at different times during the long dispute. Honolulu Memorial Park, with its pagoda rising along Pali Highway, remains closed and unlicensed by the state.
The five niche and plot owners are Pamela Cunningham, Gilbert Higa, John S. Nuha, Ann Ono and Reggie Takaki. Last month they asked the court to recognize them as the valid board of directors for Kyoto Gardens Park and for Tam and Hejmadi to return all cemetery property. The group also wants the court to order an accounting of money in the frozen account, which had an estimated $56,000 last year, and about $30,000 now, according to the suit.
"Things aren't moving along," Ono said. "We have a stake as niche and plot owners. Before we get too old and pass on ourselves, we need to get this settled. Our children would be the next generation to take over, and we don't want to leave things hanging."
For more than four years, various factions involved with the cemetery have been embroiled in controversy and finger pointing. The situation escalated after the owners of the memorial park, founded in 1958, filed for bankruptcy in 2001.
When the Richards family, founders of Honolulu Memorial Park, announced a plan to tear down the pagoda rather than spend an estimated $1 million to repair the structure, saving the pagoda became a rallying cry for those who own niches — burial places in essence — inside. Being interred in or near a pagoda holds tremendous significance for Buddhists.
The building has since been added to the Hawai'i Register of Historic Places, along with the cemetery's Kinkaku-ji Temple and the Mirror Gardens, collectively called the Kyoto Gardens.
The park has three entities: Honolulu Memorial Park Inc., which is responsible for the sale of plots; the Honolulu Memorial Association, a nonprofit that manages the million-dollar perpetual care trust fund; and Kyoto Gardens Park, a nonprofit responsible for fundraising.
A group of niche and plot owners formed the Friends of Honolulu Memorial Park to take over management of the park, and that group is now part of Kyoto Gardens Park.
Tam, who has not yet been served with the lawsuit, says he is a legitimate director of the Kyoto Gardens Park and does not have to supply spending details to the niche and plot owners.
"I promised people to bring it into normal operations, but we've had all this interference," Tam said.
Tam said the cemetery has not been able to get up and running because the Honolulu Memorial Association refuses to pay the bills or maintain the grounds.
Bruce Matsui, a director and trustee of the Honolulu Memorial Association, said the group is responsible for managing the perpetual fund, not the repair and maintenance of the cemetery.
"What we've been doing is investing it (the fund)," Matsui said. "We can only use the income from the principal toward any maintenance. Unfortunately, the amount available for use is not very much."
Matsui said the association has paid some water and electricity bills in the past and is willing to work with whichever group the court deems the legal representative of the memorial park.
"We just want to work with whomever is deemed to be responsible to get the cemetery up and running," he said.
Tam has asked the state attorney general's office to investigate the situation but so far has been denied.
Although the pagoda and temple are closed, interments continue at the cemetery, Ono said.
There is no staff, but the water is on and members pick up trash and take it home with them. Some areas have become overgrown and chunks of concrete continue to fall from the pagoda.
"The cemetery looks pretty good in most places because the plot owners have been going down to clean," Ono said. "The pagoda, the longer we wait, the more costly it will be to repair."
Reach James Gonser at email@example.com.