2017: The year in review

  • Pamela Wang poses for a photo in Kealakekua. (AP Photo/Mary Lou Knurek)

  • Traffic backs up on Queen Kaahumanu Highway after the flow was changed near Kohanaiki in August.

  • An Emergency Water Restriction sign on Hina Lani Street indicates the need to stop sprinkler use in North Kona. (Photos by Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Mayor Harry Kim listens to members of DWS talk about the broken wells in July at a community forum at the West Hawaii Civic Center. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

  • Hawaii police Officers Aron Tomota, left, and William Vickery look for occupants of a homeless camp at Old Kona Airport Park.

  • Hawaii County Police Officer Aron Tomota talks with a resident of a homeless encampment at Old Airport Park before a notice to vacate is served in August. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — OK, 2017, so you were a year of the same-ol’, same-ol’, weren’t you?

In West Hawaii, you were, a bit.

ADVERTISING

The Thirty Meter Telescope project was approved but is, well, still in the courts. The Queen Kaahumanu Highway widening project is still under construction, as it has been since George W. Bush was in the Oval Office.

There was disease outbreak — this time rat lungworm and mumps.

No, no, but wait.

There was plenty of new and improved in ‘17 as well. Kona’s airport is becoming a travel mecca, with full financial support from the state. Charges have been filed in some long-lingering court cases and a sentence was handed to a perpetrator in a decades-old one.

The county, meanwhile, is in the midst of trying to change Kailua-Kona’s downtown by refurbishing and replacing spots long associated with the homeless population.

The year gave us a bit of everything, and we can’t wait to see what 2018 parades our way.

Until then, here’s the top 10 stories of 2017 as West Hawaii Today saw them, with a few honorable mentions to boot.

1. Homelessness on the forefront

Police ushered dozens of homeless out of tent cities at Old Kona Airport Park in August — a park that had long been the face of homeless living — declaring the area off limits for residential purposes. They followed the exodus with a park-wide cleanup effort.

But with nowhere to go, homeless began to push more heavily into Kailua Village and the Old Kona Industrial Area.

The county answered by developing Camp Kikaha, an open-air homeless camp alongside Hale Kikaha, 23 micro-housing units set up for the chronically homeless on a lot next to HOPE Services Hawaii’s Friendly Place.

The county is now in talks with the state to develop a 15-acre, permanent homeless living site mauka of Queen Kaahumanu Highway and south of Kealakehe Parkway. Those close to the project say that site work may begin by late summer 2018 if approved.

The effort has received statewide attention.

2. Slow-speed highway work

The project to widen a 5.2-mile stretch of Queen Kaahumanu Highway picked up again at the start of 2017 after a months-long slowdown that occurred after breaches at two historic trails listed on the State Inventory of Historic Places.

That breach put another delay on what’s already been an often delayed project.

And that work is going to continue through the better part of 2018 — assuming the deadline isn’t pushed back again.

Ten years ago, the project, which will widen the highway from Kealakehe Parkway to Keahole Airport Road, was estimated to take two and a half years and cost about $66 million.

Since then, residents have watched the project’s cost balloon far beyond the initial estimate as the timeline has dragged out as the result of bid protests, consultations with the National Park Service and a Native Hawaiian group, redesigns and the breaches.

In 2015, the project cost was estimated at $90 million. But by this summer, the Department of Transportation estimated it at $105 million. By December, that estimate jumped to $121.3 million.

As of now, the project is considered to be 84 percent complete. It’s also still expected to be substantially completed by August 2018.

The lengthy, curvy, at times condensed construction zone was also the site of an October crash that left a Kailua-Kona cyclist dead.

James Sakai , 61, a well-known Kona triathlete, was riding his bike south when a collision occurred with a northbound pickup truck, which had attempted to turn at the airport. Police said the pickup’s driver was flagged through the intersection by a motorist traveling the other way.

3. North Kona water woes

North Kona spent almost all of 2017 under a mandatory 25 percent water usage restriction, initially implemented in January.

Not because of severe drought. Not because of a natural disaster.

Rather, because of bum luck or coincidence — or something of that nature.

Several deep wells across the region malfunctioned, failed, were fixed and failed again, all seemingly simultaneously all year long.

The Hawaii County Department of Water Supply on multiple occasions ratcheted up the restriction to include a halt on all water usage save for basic living necessities, which coincided with time periods when five of the system’s 13 deep wells were simultaneously inoperative.

DWS determined the primary cause of the dysfunction was the premature failure of submersible deep well pumps and/or motors.

Public outcry ratcheted up even more after the department chose not to disclose that two more wells failed in October leading up to the Ironman World Championship.

That led to officials launching two separate audits to determine precise causes of the failures and suggest solutions. The results of the audits have not yet been released.

The 25 percent mandatory restriction currently remains in effect.

4. ‘Railroaded’

A five-day special session of the state Legislature in late August and early September resulted in a 1 percent transient accommodations tax hike on all islands to fund a $2.4 billion bailout of an over-budget Honolulu rail project.

All four Big Island senators voted no, as did Big Island Reps. Richard Creagan, Cindy Evans Nicole Lowen and Chris Todd. Voting yes were Reps. Mark Nakashima, Richard Onishi and Joy San Buenaventura.

The TAT, or hotel tax as it’s commonly called, is a tax guests pay on their hotel bills. The division of the revenue it generates has been a point of contention between neighbor island counties and the state for years. Neighbor islands feel slighted by their slice. Then the increase came as voted by an Oahu-heavy delegation to pay for its $9.5 billion project.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Puna Democrat described his district as “99 percent opposed to it, and vehemently.”

“It’s being railroaded, pardon the pun,” Ruderman said. “This bill was crafted behind closed doors and handed to us, with a ‘take it or leave it, and by the way, you’ll take it.’”

5. Airport upgrades and changes

Hello, guests.

Ground was broken for a $75 million terminal modernization project to expand Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport in March, and in December Gov. David Ige announced $69 million in revenue bonds to fund a permanent federal inspection station.

The upgrades are needed to accommodate Kona’s swelling arrivals.

Carriers, including Alaska Airlines, United Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines, announced new flights to Kona, and Japan Airlines in September resumed its Narita-Kona flight. Through November, nonstop air seats to the airport hit 876,071, up 14.2 percent over 2016.

The Big Island, the Hawaii Tourism Authority noted, was a big reason the state’s tourism numbers hit record numbers in 2017.

But it wasn’t all good for everything in the Hawaii airline market.

Island Air — though it had resumed service to Kona in 2016 after a four-year hiatus — filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations Nov. 10. In addition, the federal government announced it would stop subsidizing air service at Waimea-Kohala Airport in January 2018 — though Mokulele Airlines said it hopes to continue service to the northern airport.

6. Charges filed in Old A rape case

A 17-year-old boy is charged as an adult in connection to a reportedly brutal rape that occurred at Old Kona Airport Park in September 2016.

Rumor of the savage assault circulated the community and online shortly after it allegedly occurred, and about a month after the alleged incident, residents gathered on Queen Kaahumanu Highway to wave signs to raise awareness about the reported sexual assault and other issues in the community, as well as to protest what appeared to be inaction in the police investigation.

Investigators at the time couldn’t share many details on the investigations. Weeks eventually turned into months.

Then, earlier this month, Tyron Sigrah appeared in 3rd Circuit Court on an array of sexual assault charges for the alleged incident. He is set to go to trial in April.

7. Mumps and rat lungworm

Another outbreak hit the state — this time, mumps and rat lungworm.

As of the end of December, 760 cases of mumps were reported statewide, 106 of them on the Big Island.

The state Department of Health (DOH) advised in early December that in addition to routine vaccinations, anyone ages 10-19 and adults born in 1957 or later “should receive an additional MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine dose now.”

Meanwhile, East Hawaii remains ground zero for rat lungworm disease in Hawaii.

But that’s not all.

A study by researchers led by University of Hawaii at Hilo professor Sue Jarvi showed almost 94 percent of rats in the Hilo area are infested with the parasite that causes the disease in humans.

It was announced in August the DOH would use $1 million from the state Legislature to study rat lungworm prevalence in rats and fund a public information campaign targeting residents and tourists, advising them to wash produce.

But while response efforts are underway, the state auditor at the end of the year also released an audit that critiqued how agencies handled other recent outbreaks across the state, including the response to the dengue outbreak on Hawaii Island in 2015, citing, among other things, a lack of reporting and communication.

8. Hiring audit, investigation and ensuing ouster

A critical audit about county hiring practices, followed by a West Hawaii Today investigative report showing preferential treatment in hiring, resulted in the sudden resignation of HR Director Sharon Toriano.

The use of the acronym “POI” — short for “person of interest” — on request-to-hire forms would seem to violate state hiring laws, and the practice of discarding mainland applications and using a mayor-appointed committee to weed applicants also veered from best hiring practices, the audit concluded.

The county Merit Appeals Board is currently evaluating applications for the director. It’s expected to take up the audit, and possibly decide on a director, at a Jan. 10 meeting.

9. Mass Transit mess

Almost half the county’s Hele-On bus fleet was out of commission, forcing the county to hire outside buses for as much as $10,000 a day. The county baseyard was in severe disarray, littered with trash, tires and bus parts.

And a bus was stolen — twice. By the same suspect.

Beleaguered Mass Transit Administrator Tiffany Kai agreed to step down, and a new transit administrator is expected to start in February. An audit of cash-handling procedures at the agency, expected to be completed in the coming months, is already forcing behind-the-scenes changes.

10. Cabinet resignations

Completing the rash of resignations, Mayor Harry Kim lost three members of his cabinet just months into his new term.

Public Works Director Frank DeMarco resigned to move to the mainland, saying he wanted to be closer to his family. Former Deputy Director Allan Simeon is currently serving as acting director, but hasn’t been confirmed by the County Council. Former Finance Director Collins Tomei resigned; saying the learning curve for the position was incredibly steep.

His deputy, Deanna Sako, who was finance director during Mayor Billy Kenoi’s administration, replaced Tomei.

The abrupt resignations of former Parks Director Charmaine Kamaka and Deputy Director Ryan Chong followed an apparent disagreement with Kim. Roxcie Waltjen, a former division head within the department, was named director.

Honorable mention

• Still wait and see for TMT

Retired judge Riki May Amano in July gave a positive recommendation for construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Maunakea after a lengthy quasi-judicial hearing.

The state Land Board in September approved a construction permit for the $1.4 billion observatory project. And in late October, opponents of the long-delayed next-generation telescope filed an appeal of that approval in the state Supreme Court, saying its construction will desecrate land some Native Hawaiians consider sacred.

Also in the Supreme Court is the state’s appeal of a ruling by Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura that the Land Board should have granted a contested case hearing to Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner E. Kalani Flores before approving a sublease by the University of Hawaii at Hilo to TMT for 6 acres on the mountain.

So still in the courts it is.

Meanwhile, Mayor Harry Kim continues to float the idea of making Maunakea a monument to peace, to include TMT, and has the backing of Gov. David Ige. The idea hasn’t caught on with opponents of the telescope, however.

Where does that all leave it heading into 2018?

TMT International Observatory, the nonprofit organization behind the long-delayed project, has set an April deadline for deciding whether to build in Hawaii or in the Canary Islands.

• Styro-gotta-go

Hawaii County became the second county in the state to ban foam food containers made from Polystyrene, commonly known as Styrofoam, when the County Council passed a bill putting the ban into effect starting July 1, 2019. Maui’s ban starts Dec. 31, 2018.

Environmental Management Director Bill Kucharski, who worked closely with the council on the bill, said the department will begin working on rules to implement the ordinance. He said there’s an as-yet unknown cost that will have to be factored into the department’s budget.

• So long, chief

Chief Judge Ronald Ibarra retired at the end of June after 28 years on the bench of Hawaii Island’s 3rd Circuit Court. Longtime litigator Robert DS Kim took Ibarra’s gavel the day before Thanksgiving.

Bold 2018 prediction by WHT here, the new $90 million judiciary complex being constructed now will be named in the great judge’s honor.

• Welcoming a new wail

After tensions heightened between the United States and North Korea, Hawaii found itself worried it could be in the target of a nuclear attack. As a result, an action plan was drafted — go inside, stay there and wait — and a new warning siren was added to the first of the month siren tests.

• Goodbye, old friend

The demolition of the Keauhou Beach Hotel began at the end of the year. Kamehameha Schools is replacing the longtime architectural fixture on Alii Drive with Kahaluu Ma Kai, a new learning center offering experiential learning and meant to function as a tribute to traditional Hawaiian culture.

• Arrests in years-old murder case

Brothers Eber and Marlon Miranda-Garcia were charged in August for the murder of Dolores Borja-Valle, also known as Lolo, who was found dead in a Captain Cook coffee field on Aug. 9, 2015.

Officers say Lolo died because he had threatened to call immigration on one of the suspects. In an odd twist, the defense was granted its motion to have the defendants appear to court hearings in plain clothes and unshackled because of the media’s camera in the courtroom. This, it was ruled, helped the suspects’ right to a fair trial by not giving the public the impression of guilt via pictures of them in prison garb.

• End of a terrible saga

Peter Kema Sr. was sentenced in July to 20 years in prison for the 1997 death of his 6-year-old son, Peter Kema Jr. Kema had lied to authorities for almost 20 years about the whereabouts of the chronically abused boy, also known as “Peter Boy” and “Pepe,” before pleading guilty in April to manslaughter and first-degree hindering prosecution.

ADVERTISING

•World record setter

Pamela Wang, of Kealakekua, stumbled upon what turned out to be the Guinness World Record heaviest avocado. The story of how she was walking and came across it went worldwide, and Guinness said in December the 5-pound, 3.6-ounce tropical fruit was the champ.