Council end runs prompt public lands rule change

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Frustrated by recent end runs by the Hawaii County Council, the commission charged by the county charter to prioritize public land for open space purchase is tightening the rules.

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Frustrated by recent end runs by the Hawaii County Council, the commission charged by the county charter to prioritize public land for open space purchase is tightening the rules.

The Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Commission on Monday changed the rules to require properties to earn at least 50 percent of the criteria points to be placed on the priority list for purchase. Criteria for purchase are set in county charter and include preservation of natural resources and culturally significant or historic sites, access to beaches and mountains and protection of watershed lands.

“The commission felt the funds should be spent on the highest priority projects,” said Chairman Tim DeLozier.

The so-called PONC program was created in 2006, after a charter amendment passed directing a minimum of 2 percent of property tax revenues be set aside in the account to purchase public lands. The commission annually prioritizes a list based on public input and other factors, and then the County Council works off that list.

But the council has twice jumped the gun, passing resolutions to purchase land with the funds and then sending it to the commission to prioritize it.

That happened most recently last July, when the council voted 6-2 to dip into open space funds to stave off a lawsuit caused by a 1999 misstep by the county Planning Department. Former South Kona/Ka’u Councilwoman Brenda Ford and former Hilo Councilman J Yoshimoto voted no.

The Gapp property, as it is known, was ranked 12th by the commission in its most recent report, earning 101 of a possible 288 points.

This year, the top seven purchases on the priority list are in North Kohala, according to the 2014 annual report sent to the mayor and council on Feb. 25.

At issue in the Gapp decision was the creation of an oceanfront lot along Government Beach Road in Hawaiian Paradise Park by combining a lot in the agricultural zone with one in the conservation district. The county created two such combined lots without approval by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, under then county Planning Director Virginia Goldstein.

The owners of one of the combined lots has threatened to sue under what county attorneys have dubbed an “inadvertent consolidation/resubdivision of conservation land.” The second landowner could also sue.

Each lot is about 6 acres and worth about $400,000, according to county Planning Department and Finance Department documents.

Puna Councilman Greggor Ilagan, who sponsored the council resolution, said the property qualifies for PONC funds. The site’s 67 archaeological features include four Native Hawaiian burial grounds, including a pre-Western contact burial platform, he said.

Others disagreed with the process.

“We have an act of misfeasance by the county that we’re trying to cover up by a misuse of PONC funds,” Ford said at the time.

Ford and several other West Hawaii council members suggested the county administration use money in its litigation or executive accounts instead of tapping PONC. Deputy Corporation Counsel Bill Brilhante told the council it has the authority to spend the money as the commission is only advisory in nature.

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The new rule goes to the mayor, then to the county clerk, where it goes into effect after 10 days have lapsed, said Deputy Corporation Counsel Craig Masuda, who advised the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Commission.

The public has submitted 168 parcels for PONC consideration since the program began. The county has so far bought 1,260 acres at a total acquisition cost of $31.7 million, including state and federal grants and private donations. There was $2.8 million in the fund as of Feb. 27, according to a PONC report.

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