Historic preservation will take leadership, collaboration
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Turnover in some key positions at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources should provide an opening to reinforce safeguards for what's become vulnerable historic sites in the Islands.
The shortage of experienced staff in the state Historic Preservation Division, which carries out laws protecting burials as well as other historic sites and buildings, has festered for far too long. But this week's resignation of division administrator Melanie Chinen signals the time to stop quarreling over the agency's future and to start planning for it, instead.
Fortunately, Laura Thielen, DLNR's new director, manages to approach this mountainous task with an attitude that's positive without sounding too Pollyanna-naive. Thielen has correctly defined the challenge: Historic preservation has to become a more proactive mission rather than one of simply keeping up with the bureaucratic regulatory workload.
The state Senate is expected to weigh in this session with its ideas about how best to preserve artifacts of Hawai'i's past, but DLNR is not losing a minute in launching its own reconstruction plan. And what's been outlined so far looks promising, because a "transition team" is in place to keep the agency's wheels rolling while a permanent chief is found.
That's essential, because the backlog of work facing the division is already daunting, and the state can ill afford any further delays.
Thielen said that, prior to her resignation, Chinen worked with her on a plan to fast-track the hiring replacements for what now amounts to some half-dozen openings within the division, with an experienced human-resources staffer tapped to focus on pushing paperwork through.
She also hopes to press ahead with a plan for an enhanced career track for professional staff, who could be promoted to higher-paid ranks as they gain experience. That should help with staff retention.
But the workload itself has got to begin to flow more efficiently if the office is ever to regain its footing. Thielen proposes to streamline approvals through blanket agreements in areas where clearly no historic resources are at risk. Since the problem over the Hokuli'a development, in which county officials issued approvals that gave short shrift to historic preservation, the state office has been flooded with approval requests — on matters as simple as replacing guard rails, she said — that should be made automatic.
The team is set to work on a database of historic resources that should make it easier for division archaeologists, architects and other expert staff to do the research required of their jobs. That database will be open to public searches, which makes good practical sense. And it will guide the department in creating more preservation districts — some urban settings, like Chinatown, as well as cherished rural landscapes.
But what the division sorely needs is leadership: someone at the helm who is good at managing staffers with varied areas of expertise, all of them juggling difficult, emotional land-use issues.
This is someone who needs an understanding and enthusiasm for the mission: protecting what remains of the Hawai'i sense of place.
It will take the engagement of the wider historic preservation community, which has been outspoken in its criticism of how the mission has been handled. It's time for the criticism and finger-pointing to give way to a more collaborative spirit.
Refocusing the state's attention on historic preservation will take a community effort, if the community is to reap the benefits.
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