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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, March 26, 2010

An agency failure of historic proportions

Things have finally come to a head for the long-troubled State Historic Preservation Division, an office of the Department of Land and Natural Resources that has been so chronically mismanaged and underfunded that the federal government has placed it on probation.

But money alone won't save SHPD, which suffers from a mission that is far too expansive and unfocused.

It's the climax of a long story that has unfolded slowly very slowly. Now, the agency that is critical to maintaining Hawai'i's historic sites and artifacts has the proverbial gun to its head.

The National Park Service this week took the rare step of designating the office as "high risk." That means SHPD will lose roughly half its operating budget of $1.1 million if things aren't whipped into shape in two years, money that will remain in suspension until the problems are fixed.

Among the items on the to-do list, according to the NPS report:

• Building a "functional" inventory of historic properties that is accessible to all, online.

• Keeping track of its reviews to document that they are timely and conducted by "appropriately qualified staff."

• Updating its State Plan, which expired Sept. 30. The report does acknowledge that work is under way to resolve this and other shortcomings.

But SHPD still has a high hill to climb to become functional.

It is chronically understaffed, with about half of its positions unfilled. Luring a credentialed specialist to work at SHPD is tough: The office frequently finds itself in the crosshairs of politically sensitive clashes between developers and residents trying to block the disturbance of Hawaiian burial remains, one of the hot-button issues that falls in the division's purview.

Staffing is an issue that dates back before the current administration, and was cited in a 2002 state audit.

If the division is ever to get a grip, the first order of business is to pare back its responsibilities.

For starters, legislators must refine the definition of what constitutes a "historic property." The law now considers "any building, structure, object, district, area or site" that is more than 50 years old historic. That means that a SHPD review is required not only for the path of the proposed rail system but for the Kailua homeowner applying for a building permit to expand the kitchen of his 1958 tract home.

SHPD does 6,000 reviews a year and the historic buildings roster, already unmanageable, is growing exponentially.

With such broad review requirements written into state law but no money to pay for them, it's no wonder the agency is on the verge of collapse.

A management overhaul is needed along with a rewrite of the office's mission. With the feds applying pressure, it's possible the agency will finally get the restoration it needs.