Most memorable moments of 2015

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Aloha, 2015, what a year you’ve been.

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Aloha, 2015, what a year you’ve been.

From clashes on mountain tops and court decisions to the unethical — some might say illegal — mayoral spending of county money, 2015 has been a year of big stories. But besides the headlines that reverberated beyond the Big Island, it’s also been a year of progress in West Hawaii, from project plan approval to projects breaking ground.

While we prepare to usher in the New Year tonight, here’s a look back at the top stories of 2015.

Thirty Meter Telescope

There will be no construction of one of the world’s largest telescopes atop Mauna Kea, at least for now. A ruling by the state Supreme Court on Dec. 2 declared that the Board of Land and Natural Resources shouldn’t have approved a permit to build the Thirty Meter Telescope before a contested case hearing was held. The ruling has put the future of the proposed $1.4 billion next-generation telescope in limbo.

“Quite simply, the board put the cart before the horse …,” Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald wrote in the high court’s opinion.

Construction would have started earlier this year had not protesters — who call themselves “protectors” — blocked vehicles carrying workers and equipment from ascending the mountain. Many of the protesters are Hawaiian sovereignty advocates who consider the proposed telescope a desecration of a sacred mountain.

Hundreds turned out for protests and dozens were arrested by police and Department of Land and Natural Resources enforcement officers for trespassing or obstructing Mauna Kea Access Road.

The ruling sends the case back to the land board for a new hearing, which could take months or years, if the international consortium seeking to build TMT wants to continue forward.

Kenoi’s pCard problems

It was revealed in March by West Hawaii Today that Mayor Billy Kenoi used his county credit card, or pCard, for a variety of personal purchases — including tabs at two Honolulu hostess bars, an expensive surfboard, a bicycle, clothing and luggage.

Records indicate Kenoi paid back the county $31,112.59 of the $129,580.73 in overall purchases he had made since taking office. Kenoi told a reporter he cut up his pCard and his account was revoked.

“Any error in judgment in the use of my card is entirely my own,” Kenoi said.

Kenoi has been under investigation by state Attorney General Doug Chin since April.

The investigation, when complete, could result in criminal charges, administrative discipline or no further action.

Dengue outbreak

An outbreak of dengue fever hit Hawaii Island in September. At last count, confirmed cases of the mosquito-borne viral illness stand at 190 as 2015 ticks away.

State health officials have identified Hookena, Honaunau and Milolii as hot spots, but say the outbreak has affected all areas of Hawaii Island.

Response by officials was slammed by some locals, who felt it was too slow, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control described the local public health response as adequate, although the centers noted concerns with mosquito control efforts and staffing levels at the DOH.

Fear of dengue has caused runs on insect repellent, where stores ran out and while the outbreak is one of the top subjects of local discussions, plenty of tourists said they’ve been told little, if anything, about it.

The current outbreak is the largest recorded in the U.S., excluding Puerto Rico and American Samoa, since World War II.

NextEra/HEI/co-op debate

The proposed $4.3 billion acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries by NextEra Energy has been approved by HEI’s shareholders and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but is still not a done deal.

Approval by the state Public Utilities Commission is all that remains for the sale of the parent company of Hawaii Electric Light Co., Hawaiian Electric on Oahu and Maui Electric to become a reality.

Standing in the way is Gov. David Ige, who said in July he doesn’t think NextEra can fulfill the state’s goal that local utilities use 100-percent renewable energy by 2045.

NextEra said in late August it will deliver almost $465 million in customer savings during the first five years after the merger closes and bring almost $500 in economic benefits to the state. It estimated Big Island ratepayers would save an average of $373 over the course of five years.

Record hurricane season

Simply put, people were on pins and needles.

This year’s hurricane season, June 1 through Nov. 30, saw 15 cyclones traveling through the Central Pacific. That eclipses the prior record of 11, set in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki hit Kauai, and tied 1994.

Despite several close calls, none of this year’s storms hit the Big Island, unlike Tropical Storm Iselle, which blasted lower Puna on Aug. 7, 2014, but residents were always on alert as another storm seemed to build right after the island escaped a scare.

New community college

West Hawaii residents, many of whom keep a careful eye on the disparities between East and West Hawaii facilities, cut the ribbon on the new Hawaii Community College — Palamanui campus above the Kona International Airport this summer.

It marked a big score for West Hawaii students and the community as a whole.

Home now to the culinary and nursing programs and other offerings from the University of Hawaii system, the campus was heralded by university officials as a gateway to the entire system via video conference and online classes.

Staff from the old leased facilities in Kealakekua moved into the new 24,000-square-foot center just in time for the fall semester. Residents urged officials to make the center, now a satellite of the Hawaii Community College in Hilo, a free-standing, accredited college. But administrators noted that the campus first has a job to do making its offerings better known, partnering with local industry and innovators in creating programs and growing its student body significantly.

Road construction

After years of planning, surveying and debating, the state began the widening of the highly used Queen Kaahamanu Highway from the airport to Kealakehe Parkway. The Department of Transportation set aside money in 2008 to begin work. There were multiple protests by unsuccessful bidders, and the route was redesigned to avoid 23 architectural sites along the way. In all, the project is expected to take two years and cost about $100 million, up from the initial estimate of $90 million.

Not to be outdone, the long-awaited 1,900-foot extension of Laaloa Avenue opened to the public Jan. 27, easing congestion and providing additional mauka-makai access to aid in emergency evacuations.

Prior, the nearest mauka-makai accesses were Royal Poinciana Drive to Lako Street to the north and King Kamehameha III Road in Keauhou to the south – a 3.2-mile distance between the two.

The two-lane, 60-foot-wide Laaloa Avenue, talked about for decades, also increased overall traffic safety for the area with the addition of sidewalks, bicycle lanes and traffic-calming devices.

Kona Judiciary Complex approved

For years, West Hawaii’s courts have been relegated to several older buildings in Kealakekua, none of which were built for that purpose. In 2015, the state Legislature approved the final $55 million needed to build a $90 million judiciary building in North Kona’s Keahuolu. The 143,000-square-foot, three-story complex to house circuit and district court functions was the single highest ticket item in the state’s capital improvements budget.

The lack of proper facilities caused safety issues at the courthouses. The deficit was highlighted last January when belligerent detainees in a holding cell at the Keakealani Building were able to disrupt a nearby courtroom with noise, causing proceedings to be postponed for an hour.

The preliminary design for the project includes five courtrooms, conference rooms, law library, a self-help center and 300 parking spaces on the 10-acre parcel mauka of Queen Kaahumanu Highway near Makala Boulevard. Groundbreaking is set for the fall of 2016 and completion targeted for spring of 2019.

Flash flooding in Kona

Kuakini Highway transformed into a muddy, raging river became a common sight in Kailua-Kona over the summer. Intense heat and tropical moisture dragged into the region by passing cyclones triggered torrential mauka rains. Rain falling to the tune of four inches an hour flooded homes, tore up construction work, closed roads and damaged coffee fields. Longtime residents said they’d never seen anything like the August and September floods.

One family lost their home on Plumeria Road.

Surrounded by soaked carpets, mud-covered floors and damaged belongings, the Giesbrecht family had no idea if it was safe to renovate — or when the next deluge would come barreling through.

“We don’t know if it’s going to happen again tomorrow,” said Sheryl Giesbrecht at the time. “It’s very fearful.”

IRONMAN sold, fined

The IRONMAN traithlon was fined $2.8 million for running an illegal lottery that gave competitors a chance to compete in Kailua-Kona’s signature 140.6-mile swim, bike, and run endurance event.

Thousands of athletes had purchased multiple entries at $50 each for a chance to compete in the race. In May, the World Triathlon Corporation — which runs IRONMAN — agreed to turn over the $2,761,910 it had earned through the lottery since Oct. 24, 2012.

A few months later, the sale of IRONMAN to China-based sports giant Dalian Wanda Group was announced. The staff of the World Triathlon Corp. was to remain employed and had signed long-term contracts with Wanda, according to the company. The $650 million acquisition makes Wanda Group one of the world’s largest sports companies.

Honorable mention

Sharks, fire and lava nearly made the cut. A few stories that warrant mentioning didn’t make the top list.

Kawaihae fire

The Kawaihae area was extensively burned in August, drowned in September and then burned again in November. Residents of the Kawaihae Village had to evacuate the fire in August and stood ready as the line of flames crawled toward their homes in November. The heavy rains tore away topsoil and damaged roadways. They also powered the growth of plants throughout the region that fueled the November fire.

The fire led to the cancellation of the 43rd annual Hookuikahi Establishment Day Hawaiian Cultural Festival and closed Puukohola Heiau National Park.

Lava

The No. 1 story of 2014 was a slow but seemingly inexorable movement of lava from Kilauea volcano toward Pahoa.

The threat continued into 2015, with lava from the June 27 flow flirting with entering populated areas and crossing Highway 130.

Hawaiian Volcano Observatory downgraded the threat level from “warning” to “watch” in late March after the flow slowed and stopped on several occasions, with the leading edge stalling within a half-mile of the highway and even closer to Pahoa Marketplace.

While the threat of the village being inundated eased, Madame Pele continued to make her presence known.

In April, the lava lake inside Kilauea caldera rose suddenly, making it visible at night and causing a spike in tourism at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in May to 169,435 visitors (5,466 per day), a 37 percent increase over the 123,662 visitors in May 2014.

Shark attacks

Three shark attacks were recorded in Big Island waters this year, two more than in 2014, and all in murky waters.

On March 18, Dr. Ken Grasing, a 58-year-old Veterans Administration physician from Overland Park, Kansas, suffered deep cuts to his left forearm and a gash on his left thigh when he was bitten by a tiger shark while snorkeling at Hapuna Beach.

Grasing, who has since recovered, said he was fortunate the shark “didn’t like what it tasted.”

On Sept. 20, 27-year-old Braxton Rocha of Kapaau was spearfishing off Upolu Point in North Kohala when he was attacked by a 13-foot tiger shark. Rocha punched the shark and swam ashore. He uploaded a selfie video showing a gruesome gash to his leg and said, “Just got attacked by a tiger shark! Hoo! Going to the hospital!”

The video went viral and Rocha, who has since recovered, earned a new nickname: “Shark Boy.”

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On Nov. 3 at Kehena Beach. Paul O’Leary, a 54-year-old Mountain View man, was bitten on the foot while swimming nude. O’Leary said he never saw the shark. Another naked swimmer, Richard Dingman, helped him make it ashore.

“If you’ve never gone swimming nude, you gotta try it,” O’Leary told reporters. “You feel very free.”