Waimea Valley preserved
By Will Hoover
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Will Hoover
A consortium of government agencies and nonprofits is buying Waimea Valley for $14 million and will keep it undeveloped.
Following a flurry of activity and closed-door meetings yesterday, government officials announced an out-of-court settlement that ended the dispute for control of the North Shore valley.
The future of the valley, which many people consider a cultural treasure, had been in doubt since New York investor Christian Wolffer acquired it in 1996.
Mayor Mufi Hannemann said the deal won't cost the city "one penny more" than the $5 million it put into escrow in 2001 to buy the land through condemnation.
"This historic agreement will allow us to preserve one of the most pristine and treasured ahupua'a on O'ahu for future generations," the mayor said.
The other groups financing the deal are the U.S. Army, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the National Audubon Society.
Reaction was immediate.
"Today, one of the great treasures of the Islands — a living ahupua'a, a connection to Hawai'i's proud past and our future — has been saved from development," said Michael North, president of the Stewards of Waimea Valley.
Hannemann said the city would obtain a conservation and public access easement in perpetuity over the valley.
"Today," Hannemann said, "the mediator, Clyde Matsui, worked out an out-of-court settlement, which Circuit Court Judge Gary Chang approved."
He praised the consortium participants who, along with the city and county, were involved in purchasing the valley.
But William McCorriston, attorney for Wolffer, said at a news conference at his office said that much of the credit for the successful conclusion goes to Hannemann himself, because he took the time to sit down and explain to Wolffer how much the valley means to the people of Hawai'i.
"I can't emphasize enough that the mayor, in my opinion, took the lead and did an outstanding job," McCorriston said.
He added that Wolffer's dream had been to one day own a home in the valley, which McCorriston said Wolffer had come to love. But he said Wolffer changed his mind after visiting with the mayor.
Wolffer made the deal even though he was convinced the value of the land was actually around $20 million, the lawyer said.
McCorriston said the deal is expected to be finalized between mid-March and the first of July. The only official action that needs to happen is an approval vote by the city council.
Hannemann, who also thanked the council for its efforts in protecting the valley, said he was sure the council would approve the settlement.
Council Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz also expressed his satisfaction with the agreement.
"It was a long and bumpy road getting here," said Dela Cruz, who represents District 2, which includes Waimea. "It's like a win, win, win, win situation. It keeps the valley whole."
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs will take ownership of the property and operate it in partnership with the valley's current manager, the Audubon Society, Hannemann said.
Hannemann had special thanks for the U.S. Army and the Trust for Public Land, which he said came came up with the remaining funds when it looked as if the participants would fall short of what was needed to acquire the land.
"We look forward to this being the first of many such projects we're able to accomplish with the money that's given to us through the Army Environmental Center to seed these types of opportunities," Army Col. Howard J. Killian said.
Killian had earlier said the military likes to preserve buffer zones near its training grounds, such as one nearby in Kahuku.
The day began when the council convened on short notice in an unusual emergency meeting to consider the terms of a new settlement proposal.
Seven members of the council met briefly in executive session to be briefed by the city's first deputy corporation counsel, Donna Woo, and then left without discussing what had happened with members of the media.
Woo told reporters that she and everyone involved were under a court order to refrain from discussing the settlement at the risk of going to jail.
The Waimea Valley debate came to a dramatic head at a highly charged city council meeting on Dec. 7, when the nine council members unanimously voted to reject a settlement proposal submitted to the city by Attractions Hawaii.
That proposal would have split the valley between the city and Wolffer — giving the city the lower 300 acres, and Wolffer keeping the remaining upper 1,575 acres.
A parade of individuals and groups loudly voiced their opposition to the settlement, saying they feared it would lead to development in the valley.
Wolffer acquired the valley in 1996 when he became principal owner of Attractions Hawaii, which owned the valley and Sea Life Park.
Wolffer sold Sea Life Park but kept the valley, promising to keep it intact. However, the community became alarmed when Wolffer later tried to sell it as a private residence.
Following the council's Dec. 7 vote rejecting the settlement proposal, the city prepared to go to trial on Feb. 13 to let the courts decide the valley's fair market value, which Wolffer said was more than $18 million.
However, on Dec. 9, Hannemann said he would negotiate an out-of-court settlement to preserve the valley without enduring a court battle.
"This is a happy day for everyone," said Peter Young, chairman of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, after the mayor's announcement.
"The message from the community was loud and clear, that they wanted us to do the right thing. We obviously feel that happened.
"Equally important, we did it the right way — through a partnership with the city, the state, the federal agencies, OHA and Audubon. I'm hopeful that in the future we'll be able to continue partnerships like this."
Reach Will Hoover at email@example.com.