PRESERVING THE POND
Preserving the Pond
By Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Andrew Gomes
For 23 years, Tad Hara lived in one of the most unique homes in Hawai'i, a modest single-wall house built on stilts above an ancient spring-fed fishpond connected to the ocean and viewable through a living room floor made of glass.
But for more than a decade, the two-story house fronting Maunalua Bay below Niu Valley in East Honolulu has been vacant since the state condemned the property after contractors damaged the artesian spring while widening Kalaniana'ole Highway in the early 1990s.
Hara fought the condemnation, which also applied to a neighboring beachfront house that shared the fishpond, but the state prevailed at acquiring the property rather than trying to restore the underground stream feeding the freshwater fishpond as Hara had wanted.
Now, the state Department of Transportation intends to transfer the two residential parcels and the pond to the University of Hawai'i and a nonprofit cultural preservation group seeking to restore the fishpond for public educational and cultural use.
Hara, who is 83 and has lived in 'Aiea Heights since losing his battle with the state, remains bitter about the taking of his property, but he's supportive of the attempt to restore the fishpond.
"I think they're doing something good," he said. "Otherwise, everything would be forgotten."
Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center is the nonprofit spearheading the restoration project under its broad mission to preserve Honolulu's last remaining fishponds for community education.
The group led by Chris Cramer is working with UH's Hawai'inuiakea School of Hawaiian Knowledge to restore the former Hara property fishpond known as Kalauha'eha'e, or Lucas Spring, which is connected to the ocean by a traditional rock 'auwai, or canal.
According to Cramer, Kalauha'eha'e is a registered Hawaiian fishpond on a site that was once a summer home and royal taro patch of King Kamehameha and Queen Ka'ahumanu.
"We envision this as an intimate place where knowledgeable kupuna, cultural practitioners, scientists and professional educators can pass their knowledge about limu, Hawaiian navigation and other traditional practices related to the ocean environment to younger generations," Cramer said in a statement.
Cramer's group is working in partnership with Hawai'inuiakea, which proposes to provide educational and research programs at the site and help raise money for restoring the pond and the homes.
Maenette Benham, Hawai'inuiakea dean, estimates it will cost roughly $2 million to pay for the restoration and three years of educational program funding.
As envisioned, Hawai'inuiakea would use the two homes for classroom and research space as an extension of programs at the university's Manoa campus, including near-shore land management, fishpond care, celestial navigation and Hawaiian language.
"It's a way for Hawai'inuiakea to do work in the community," Benham said.
The proposal must still be presented to the UH Board of Regents, which would have to approve the partnership project for it to proceed. Benham said she hopes to receive a decision from Regents within the next month or so.
Hawai'inuiakea is working with Cramer's group to raise most of the $2 million for the project through grants and donations. A balance of $250,000 to $500,000 would be existing Hawai'inuiakea spending for programs that would be relocated to Kalauha'eha'e. So Benham won't be asking regents to fund the project except for possibly future maintenance costs.
If successful, the restoration project will replace long-delayed plans by the Transportation Department to put the properties up for public auction, and alleviate fears from some in the community that a sale could lead to a new owner filling in the stagnant pond.
Selling the two properties had been delayed in prior years for various reasons despite their relatively high value and low usefulness to the Transportation Department.
The most recent schedule called for a public auction toward the end of last year.
Neighbors to the property say they're happy that the Transportation Department finally appears ready to do something with the vacant property, which attracted vandalism, rubbish and sometimes squatters.
"This is a thorn in my side, or a blight on my highway," said City Councilman Charles Djou, who said his constituents regularly call to complain about the property, which prompts the state to resolve problems temporarily until more trouble arises and the cycle repeats.
"It's just that somebody needs to take care of this place," Djou said, adding that he's supportive of the nonprofit and UH assuming responsibility.
Cramer, who has extensively researched fishponds on Maunalua Bay, feared that Kalauha'eha'e might be destroyed if sold at auction, and urged the public to contact state leaders to preserve the property.
The preservationist attracted the help of Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, who visited the site in January and threw his support behind the plan.
"We fully recognize the historical and cultural significance of these properties," Aiona said in a statement. "We are committed to finding a solution that will keep these properties in public hands."
Under a conceptual plan, DOT would swap the property with land owned by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which in turn would deed the fishpond property to UH.
DOT is pursuing a land swap because it's required to receive fair value for the fishpond site because federal highway money was used to acquire the property.
The two homes were among residential property acquired in conjunction with widening Kalaniana'ole from four lanes to six from 'Aina Haina to Hawai'i Kai in an $86 million-project completed in 1995.
Much of the real estate condemned comprised just a few feet of driveways, though whole parcels were acquired in some cases where too much land was needed. The state has sold some, but not all, of these remnant properties usually to neighboring landowners because the parcels are too small for homes.
For Hara's property, only 52 square feet, essentially a slice of his driveway, was initially intended for condemnation along with a similar slice of the neighboring property sharing the fishpond.
But Hara, a real-estate broker, said state contractors digging a trench in 1993 damaged the underground stream feeding the pond. He said the spring delivering an estimated 250,000 gallons of fresh water a day to his property under the highway was cut off, killing the fish in the pond.
In the pond were prized koi, as well as 'a'awa, aholehole, mullet, prawns, crabs and other animals that made their way into the pond from the ocean through the 'auwai when they were small and grew too big to leave.
Hara said he never ate fish from his own pond, but regularly fished in the ocean. "The 'oama — oh, man, so nice," he said. "All that gone just because the state did a stupid thing."
After he was forced to move, Hara quit fishing, and now has only memories of the special place he used to live in. The state paid Hara about $600,000 for the property, but Hara said legal fees and other expenses reduced what he considered an unfair deal.
"You know, to this day, not one person in the whole state said 'I'm sorry,' " he said. "The state didn't want to go through the expense (to fix the spring). If they wanted to, they could get the water back. They took the convenient way and condemned the property. It was like I had no choice."
Reach Andrew Gomes at email@example.com.