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2013 : The Year in Review

Updated: 
December 24, 2013 - 6:28pm

2013 may have flown by, but there was still plenty of time for big news in West Hawaii. From shark attacks and a hospital affiliation to new laws and construction of a long-promised place of higher learning getting underway, the plethora of news stories coming out of the western half of Hawaii Island made choosing the year’s top 10 difficult. But, here they are:

1. Saddle Road is realigned, opens as Daniel K. Inouye Highway

The Saddle Road realignment opened to the public Sept. 7, what would have been the 89th birthday of the late Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, for whom the highway was named.

State and federal officials have been working since 2004 to improve the cross-island route. Some 41 miles of the 48-mile route have been improved, including the new alignment, which shaves approximately 18 minutes off the trip, bringing drivers to a terminus with Highway 190 several miles closer to Kona.

Just 5 miles of the route, located on the Hilo side, have yet to be improved.

2. Work starts on Hawaii Community College at Palamanui

The University of Hawaii, after decades of discussion of a campus in the West Hawaii area, began construction in May on the first phase of the education system’s 13th campus, Hawaii Community College at Palamanui.

This follows the first bidding contractor for the phase withdrawing its $21.5 million bid, which came in $4 million more than the university had budgeted, putting the campus’ progress in jeopardy in January. The next lowest bid, from F&H Construction, was for about $25.5 million, leaving an $8 million gap between funding and cost. The University of Hawaii Board of Regents in February approved “repurposing” $6.5 million in revenue bonds left over from an Oahu project to pay for the difference, saving the project. Some $2.4 million in work was removed from the project, including photovoltaic panels and equipment for the culinary arts kitchens and science labs, to bring the cost to $22.7 million, allowing the project to move forward in May.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie in November released an additional $2.4 million to cover portions of the project that had to be removed, ensuring the project’s first phase is completed in its entirety at one time.

3. Anti-GMO bill signed into law

The debate over genetically modified crops took off in 2013. The Hawaii County Council and its committees took up GMOs in May, with the introduction of a bill to prevent farmers from planting any genetically modified organisms.

After amendments in June, hundreds offered testimony in July on both sides before the bill was withdrawn for amendments and another anti-GMO bill was introduced. The amended bill would come back before the full council for vote, passing 6-3 on Nov. 19.

Mayor Billy Kenoi signed the bill banning open-air use and testing of genetically modified crops, with some exemptions, on Dec. 5. It went into effect immediately.

4. Hokulia sold, announces reorganization plans and opts to pay for Mamalahoa bypass

At the start of 2013, Hokulia, which filed bankruptcy in 2008, announced the development’s phases 2 and 3 were being bought from Lloyd’s Bank by SunChase Holdings, a Phoenix- and Sacramento-based real estate investment firm associated with the Walton family, of Walmart. The purchase of the 52 lots was completed in March.

In August, Sun Kona Finance LLC, a firm related to SunChase, and debtors 1250 Oceanside Partners, Pacific Star Co. and Front Nine filed a reorganization plan to revive the long-stalled development, which has been in the works since the 1990s and mired in lawsuits. The reorganization plan also ensures Hawaii County receives $20 million for the second phase of the Mamalahoa bypass. In October, according to 1250 Oceanside Partners’ restructuring plan, the parties agreed to pay the county $20 million to complete the bypass by March 23.

Hawaii County officials in March 2012 accepted a settlement from the developer and the bond company securing the road project that gave the county $12.5 million in cash and a $20 million mortgage, secured by property within the project to be paid within two years if Oceanside or a subsequent developer did not complete the southern portion of the bypass. At the time, county officials conceded it would likely be the county that would construct the bypass segment, which will run from Halekii Street to Napoopoo Road.

5. Brush fire scorches 1.5 square miles, forces evacuations of hundreds in urban Kona

A brush fire ignited the afternoon of July 20 near the Kohanaiki Business Park in urban North Kona, forcing the evacuation of 300 people from Lokahi Ka‘u Affordable Apartments, and coming within 50 yards of homes on Kakahiaka Street and 50 yards of a construction site below the street before firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze. The fire scorched 1.5 square miles.

The 1,000-acre burn area stretched from Hulikoa Drive mauka toward Wainani Estates, located off Kaiminani Drive. No injuries were reported and no structures were deemed threatened by the blaze.

6. West Hawaii Regional Fishery Management Area rules package passed

A move to amend the West Hawaii Regional Fisheries Management Area rules package to include a scuba spearfishing ban, 40 species “white list,” a 1,500-foot section of Kaohe Bay in South Kona as a fish replenishment area; outlawing the take of nine shark and ray species and two invertebrates and establishing a West Hawaii Aquarium permit drew crowds to public hearings.

Following the hearings, DLNR Chairman William Aila struck the highly controversial scuba spearfishing ban, creating uproar. The ban was re-added to the package by the Board of Land and Natural Resources before voting in late June in favor of the amended rules package.

The rules were later transferred to the Attorney General for review and, after some delay, sent to Gov. Neil Abercrombie for signature. Abercrombie signed the rules package Dec. 16. The rules go into effect Thursday.

7. Thirty Meter Telescope selects Mauna Kea, faces continued opposition

Thirty Meter Telescope in January selected Mauna Kea as the site where it will construct one of the world’s largest telescopes. The $1.3 billion initiative, which formed in 2003, is expected to start construction in 2014, pending a final decision of the TMT board of directors and sublease granted by the University of Hawaii, and begin operations in 2022.

Following the announcement, opponents, citing cultural resources, the site being sacred and environmental concerns, among others, protested the BLNR to not grant a land use permit, which it approved in April. An appeal was subsequently filed, citing the board did not uphold its public trust duties to protect natural and cultural resources, and heard Dec. 13 in 3rd Circuit Court. The judge has yet to make a ruling.

The University of Hawaii recently put on hold granting leases for Mauna Kea pending an environmental impact study, which school officials hope will prevent legal challenges to a new lease.

8. Sharks attack four in Big Island waters, three in waters off West Hawaii

West Hawaii waters accounted for three of the four nonfatal shark attacks in Big Island waters this year. The attacks occurred in January, June, August and December. The four shark attacks are among 14 reported statewide in 2013; two of which were fatal.

Before these attacks, 1999 was the last year individuals had been nonfatally bitten by sharks in waters off the Big Island. That year, a 43-year-old man suffered a bite to his right thigh and derriere in waters off Honolii in July. In October, a 16-year-old had his arm bitten by a shark while surfing in waters off Old Kona Airport Park and in November 1999, a 51-year-old Rhode Island woman was bitten on her derriere.

In 2011, there were two reports of sharks biting boards, but not people.

9. North Hawaii Community Hospital affiliates with The Queen’s Health Systems

In June, Waimea-based North Hawaii Community Hospital and The Queen’s Health Systems, corporate parent of The Queen’s Medical Center on Oahu, announced they were exploring an affiliation. NHCH cited the need to bolster the hospital’s management abilities, information technology system and financial stability.

On Dec. 16, the two announced a formal affiliation to go into effect Jan. 1. Officials said the hospital will keep its name and branding, but will add a tagline that it is affiliated with the health system. All employees were to be retained after the affiliation. Officials are still working to assess the community’s immediate needs.

10. Site selected for the long-sought Kona Judiciary Complex

The state Judiciary announced in May that the state Legislature had cut its funding request for the long-sought $90 million Kona Judiciary Complex to $9 million, but the project remained on schedule for a 2019 opening.

In August, the Judiciary announced the site it selected for the courthouse, near the West Hawaii Civic Center, in 2012 was off the table because of an endangered tree on the parcel. Officials announced in late October, a new site for the project had been selected on a 10-acre parcel owned by Queen Liliuokalani Trust mauka of Makalapua Center.

The Board of Land and Natural Resources approved the site’s use in concept. The state Judiciary is expected to request another $81 million for the project in the coming cycle.

Honorable mentions:

Laaloa Avenue work gets underway

Laaloa Avenue, which will offer another mauka-makai connector road in West Hawaii, got underway this summer. That followed an appeal by the lowest bidding contractor, Nan Inc., over Hawaii County’s awarding of the project to Isemoto Contracting for $7.87 million. Isemoto won the contract, with the county citing two credits — one to give preference for using Hawaii products and one for having an apprenticeship program as reasons Isemoto came out lower.

Work continues on the 1,900-foot extension that will serve as a connector between Alii Drive and Kuakini Highway, the only one between Kamehameha III Road and Royal Poinciana Drive.

DLNR bans kayak activities at Kealakekua Bay, then reinstates them

The state Department of Land and Natural Resources at the beginning of January closed Kealakekua Bay to all recreational and commercial activities because of ongoing illegal kayak vending and concerns about damage to cultural and historical sites at Kaawaloa.

Two commercial companies were allowed to resume operations April 1, leading to a peaceful protest at the bay. More than a month later, on May 29, the department announced the bay was open to recreational-use, so long as the public, those using kayaks, standup paddleboards and one-man canoes, applied for a free special use permit and promised not to land at Kaawaloa.

That lifted a limit the department set on the number of noncommercial kayakers allowed, which the state Attorney General determined the department did not have the authority to do under its existing rules.

Kona Village Resort lays off last employees, hit with foreclosure suit

Kona Village Resort, damaged extensively during the March 2011 tsunami and shuttered shortly thereafter, laid off the last two dozen of its remaining employees in September citing financial woes. In November, New York-based Deutsche Bank Trust Co. of America filed suit saying the resort failed to make good on $86 million in loan agreements provided to the property owners, Kona Village Investors, in 2012.