HAWAII WEIGHS PLAN TO REFURBISH PARKS
'Renaissance' proposed for parks
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Hawai'i's state parks, trails and harbors are falling apart during a time of economic crisis, but the head of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources sees two distinct paths in front of her:
Temporarily close a handful of state parks for a few years, charge admission fees to eight more parks and watch all of the other trails, harbors and parks fall into further disrepair as DLNR absorbs an expected 20 percent budget hit. Or embark on the biggest parks, trails and harbors spending project ever launched in the Islands $240 million for 238 separate projects during a statewide and nationwide recession.
"We are at a fork in the trail," said DLNR chairwoman Laura H. Thielen. "We have piers that are literally falling in the water. We have parks where the restroom facilities are an embarrassment to the state to have our tourists walking in there. And it's shameful that our own residents have to go through those conditions. If we don't follow this path of hope, we're just going to continue to lose these outdoor recreational places at a faster and faster rate because they are all simultaneously reaching the end of their life spans."
So the DLNR and the administration of Gov. Linda Lingle are asking the Legislature to approve the initial phase of an ultimate five-year plan that would not only refurbish Hawai'i's statewide inventory of trails, harbors and parks but also create a "recreational renaissance" that would see even more, ambitious projects that supporters say would ultimately pay for itself.
More than 10.1 million people used Hawai'i's state parks in 2007 nearly 1 million more people than in 2003, according to a study commissioned by the Hawai'i Tourism Authority.
Between 2003 and 2007, the number of local people using state parks jumped 17 percent. But two-thirds of all state parks users were tourists, according to the study.
So the recreational renaissance plan intends to charge both tourists and kama'aina admission and parking fees for the most popular state parks just as they're charged at Diamond Head and the city's Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve.
But so-called user fees won't be nearly enough to cover the cost of overhauling the state's sprawling inventory of 54 parks, 20 small boat harbors, 25 boat ramps or landings, 275 miles of hiking trails, 19 natural area reserves, 55 forest reserves and hundreds of miles of state beaches.
So Thielen wants to generate the bulk of the money by leasing some of the 1 million acres of land under DLNR's control for commercial and industrial use. The revenue would then be used to pay the debt service on an estimated $200 million in general obligation, reimbursable bonds over the five years of the plan.
First, Thielen and Lingle want the Legislature to approve $40 million in general obligation bonds in the first two years to refurbish the first state parks that will charge entry and parking fees, which would then be applied to future projects.
If approved, $31.3 million worth of projects that have already been cleared for design and construction could be put out to bid in just the first year, followed by another $20.6 million worth of projects in the second year, Thielen said.
Elizabeth Reilly, a member of the Hawai'i Kai Neighborhood Board and a community organizer, likes the idea of finding innovative ways to pay for park improvements. But as someone who has been fighting development of the Ka Iwi Shoreline, Reilly believes the success of a major effort like the recreational renaissance will rely on the individual proposals for each project.
"The recreational renaissance package has great merit," Reilly said. "Truly the devil's in the details. At the community, micro-level, I don't know what it means."
For instance, Reilly has seen the master plan for the Ka Iwi Shoreline, and it does not consider user fees.
"That has not been the people's will for the last 30 years," Reilly said. "The will of the people is to keep the area country. We've had a 30-year battle to maintain that area as a natural, wild coastal area."
The overall concept of the recreational renaissance also has the support of the Hawai'i chapter of the Sierra Club. But club members did chafe at imposing user fees for state lands and waters that historically have been free and open to the public, said Robert D. Harris, the Sierra Club's statewide director.
"It is a concession, and it's a big one and it's an important one," he said. "It was not an easy decision for the club. But if we keep fighting the same fight, eventually the parks will just fall apart. We need to go down another path."
The Sierra Club likes the idea that the user fees would be applied to much bigger parks projects and could not be raided by lawmakers, Harris said.
And he has been given "absolute assurances" from Lingle's administration that the recreation renaissance plan will pay for itself, with no additional costs on taxpayers.
"Now we're very much in support of it," Harris said. "Parks always take second place to education and affordable housing, perhaps rightfully so. But virtually everyone would say we need good parks and we need good marinas. It's right up there with motherhood and apple pie."
State Sen. Clayton Hee, D-23rd, (Kane'ohe, Kahuku), chairman of the Senate's water, land, agriculture and Hawaiian affairs committee, isn't convinced that the idea won't end up costing taxpayers.
Hee's committee is likely to hear the bill this session if it passes the House. And attorneys for Hee's committee are already poring over the plan, Hee said.
"I'm just not sure," Hee said. "There are several presumptions that have yet to be established, not the least of which is whether or not the financing can be obtained and whether the debt service for the financing will be pushed upon the taxpayers."
Hee, a Native Hawaiian who previously chaired the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, also worries about charging people to access state lands. Until Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay imposed fees, the prevailing philosophy in the Islands was that all land from mauka to makai had to remain open to everyone.
Even hotels and private housing projects cannot block access to mountains and beaches.
"It has been the state's policy that any development must include access and easements and right of ways so that the public has a means to get to our natural resources and not be shut off," Hee said. "... You cannot keep pushing local people out of local areas. It is simply bad policy to do so."
Thielen believes it's also bad policy to let the state's trails, parks and harbors fall apart without trying something new.
The concept of a recreational renaissance has even invigorated the DLNR staff like never before, Thielen said.
Longtime DLNR employees some of whom have worked for the department for a quarter-century "all say they have never seen this type of concentrated effort on anything, let alone recreational areas," Thielen said. "The original renaissance occurred 300 years ago. This five-year proposal is our renaissance toward a whole new way of looking at something that triggers more ideas and more ideas and more ideas. We are going to fix these places and we are going to keep them fixed."
If not, Thielen said, there is a clear alternative.
"Yes," she said. "We are likely going to have to close some parks for some time. But I am highly optimistic that the renaissance program will go forward."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.