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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 2, 2007

Vandalism 'escalating' at Hawaii's Plantation Village

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By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser West O'ahu Writer

Hawaii's Plantation Village official Jeff Higa says that 40 feet of copper pipes were cut and stolen from under a park building. Fixing the damage will be expensive.

DEBORAH BOOKER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Increasing vandalism at Hawaii's Plantation Village has prompted officials at the Waipahu cultural heritage museum to dip into the center's small treasury to beef up security.

The vandalism, officials said, is due at least in part to people living on the edges of the sprawling, somewhat wooded 55-acre property.

In recent months, trespassers have stolen taro leaves and damaged property on the grounds.

But the biggest headache for park officials occurred either the night of May 7 or early morning of May 8, when vandals broke a section of trellis under the raised Okada Education Center and stole about 40 feet of copper plumbing fixtures, said Jeff Higa, the assistant executive director.

"They stole the plumbing pipe, the water pipe, and they were trying to steal the air conditioning pipe," Higa said. The air conditioning pipe was filled with gas and oil, so the vandals left it.

But the damage had been done, leaving visitors and staff of the village without air conditioning in the Waipahu heat just as summer is approaching, Higa said.

It will cost just under $5,000 to repair the damage to the air conditioning. The city, which leases what's formally known as the Waipahu Cultural Garden Park to the Hawaii's Plantation Village board of directors, has agreed to pay for PVC piping replacement and is taking bids on the repair, Higa said. Meanwhile, the nonprofit organization needs to pick up the $800 to $1,800 needed to replace the coolant in the system, he said.

At least some of the problems appear to be the result of a handful of people who live in shanty-like structures in the dense vegetation at the edges of the property and just outside of it.

Higa said he doesn't want to press people who are down and out and in need of food and shelter. But the actions of some are affecting operations at the plantation village, he said. "It seems like over the last six months, it's kind of escalated," Higa said.

Clifford Wong, who operates a taro farm on about six acres of the property independent of the Plantation Village, said people have stolen leaves and plants from his area.

Burglars have also made off with batteries, siphoned fuel from a farm vehicle, and broken into a tool shed on the site.

"You name it, they do it," Wong said.

The park has been hiring a security company to do drive-by checks, which cost about $1,000 a month. The village board recently voted to more than double that, which would allow for on-site security. "We're going to try different things to see what works the best," Higa said.

City parks and police officials say they empathize with the Plantation Village officials.

Sgt. Douglas Iwamasa, a police detective, said the park's isolation makes the vandalism difficult to solve.

Officers go into the thick vegetation and have served warrants on some people, but the police department does not have the personnel to go there all the time, he said.

"It is a public park, so it's really hard to key on one group of people because it's for everybody," he said. "The problem there is it's in kind of a secluded area and once it's gated up, these homeless people get in on foot. They inhabit the place because there's nobody watching and they have the full run of that area."

Iwamasa said the area frequented by the homeless extends out toward Farrington Highway to the south and the far side of Waikele Stream to the north and west. Some clues point to drug-dealing and prostitution activity, he said.

Last month, the Waipahu Neighborhood Board voted to support Higa's request to the city parks department to officially shut the park down from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. City parks director Lester Chang said he already considers the park closed once the Plantation Village is closed. Enforcement, however, is another issue. "It's pretty wide open," he said, echoing Iwamasa's point. "It is a challenge."

On at least some weekdays, the Plantation Village draws few visitors.

Jeanne MacKay, from Lenexa, Kan., was the sole visitor in the museum's souvenir shop on a recent afternoon. MacKay is disappointed that there aren't more tourists and locals taking advantage of the facility.

"This place needs to be more widely used," MacKay said. "People need to come and see the history."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.