County in contract to buy lost lava land

  • Lava enters the ocean between Waiopea Tide Pools and Ahalanui Park Monday. (Photo courtesy USGS)

HILO — The ongoing lava flow has swallowed most of a $2.7 million parcel the county is buying for open space.

About two-thirds of the 284-acre parcel in Vacationland, currently in escrow, has been inundated, said county Property Manager Hamana Ventura.

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The parcel, known as the Vacationlands Land Trust/Hara Property, includes what were previously the Waiopae tide pools before lava consumed them last month. The property borders the south side of Kapoho Kai Road and is makai of Highway 137. It also borders the marine life conservation district with about 4,000 feet of shoreline south of the Vacationland subdivision.

Ventura said the county Corporation Counsel is in discussions with the state Department of the Attorney General, because the state Legacy Land conservation program had committed to chipping in $1.3 million.

Commissioners at a meeting Monday of the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission asked if the county can simply back out of the purchase.

The purchase was intended to create a buffer between Vacationland development and the tide pools, said Commissioner Rene Siracusa. There are discussions ongoing about restricting future development in Lava Zone 1, she said.

“That would remove the reason for having a buffer,” Siracusa said.

Commissioner Koohan Paik-Mander said the county could just ask the Legacy Land Conservation Commission to withhold the money.

“Is there any sense or common sense to ask Legacy Land to not move forward?” Paik-Mander said. “Does it make sense to tell Legacy Land we want to withdraw this whole deal?”

Commissioners were told the authority to do that doesn’t lie with them. Their authority stops once the commission ranks its purchase recommendations and submits it to the mayor.

The County Council had approved a purchase resolution for the property in 2013, and negotiations began in 2014.

Ventura said the county hasn’t yet received a notice to proceed from the state, because the Legacy Land grant hasn’t been finalized.

“Once we get clarification and a decision from Legacy Lands … then the county will be coming up with a game plan,” Ventura said.

There is still value in the property as an educational opportunity, he said outside the meeting. The land offers a unique opportunity for scientists and students and perhaps will excite youngsters into pursuing careers in science, he said.

“Maybe it will give everyone updated information when it comes to current and updated flows,” Ventura said. “If you get a chance to study volcanology in real time and see it as it unfolds, that’s something else.”

The land fund began after more than half of island voters cast their ballots in favor of setting aside 2 percent of property tax revenues to buy open space. As of June 30, the fund had grown to $16.2 million.

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After former Mayor Billy Kenoi in 2010 suspended payments into the fund to balance the budget, voters approved a charter amendment requiring at least 1 percent of property tax revenues go to the fund, rather than simply recommending it. In November 2012, voters increased that minimum back to 2 percent and approved a new measure, this one to set aside 0.25 percent of revenues to maintain lands purchased through the fund.

By law, the county can’t pay more than the value determined by an independent appraiser. Sometimes landowners donate all or part of their property to the county.