HILO — The purchase of a large Ka‘u tract for conservation might take more time as Hawaii County seeks to set aside 25 acres for a wastewater treatment plant.
Last August, the County Council passed a resolution to acquire the 2,209-acre site, which stretches from Naalehu down to the coast, in a partnership with the Trust for Public Land and Ala Kahakai Trail Association.
But the mauka portion of the property has since been identified as a preferred site for the sewer plant, which the county needs to build to comply with a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency order to close the town’s large-capacity cesspool.
To allow both initiatives to proceed, the state Land Board will consider amending a $2 million grant to Ala Kahakai to allow for the removal of the upper 25 acres from a proposed conservation easement. The land will remain part of the purchase.
As it stands, the grant would require the group to place the entire property under the easement.
Carving out the area won’t affect the purchase agreement, according to Laura Kaakua, project manager for the Trust for Public Lands. But it would give the county the option of purchasing that land in the future for the wastewater project. Proceeds from a county purchase or acquisition through eminent domain would benefit the Legacy Land Conservation Program.
These additional steps have caused an “unexpected complication” in finalizing the purchase with the landowner since it affects the grants, she said.
Kaakua said that won’t be a deal-killer with the sale, but acknowledged it has caused a delay that affects some of their deadlines.
“We were hoping to close in January,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”
The property hosts the site of the former Waikapuna fishing village and historical trails, among other cultural features. It also was the childhood summer home of Hawaiian scholar Mary Kawena Pukui.
The area the county is considering for the treatment plant is adjacent to the town and not near the cultural resources.
While the property is the county’s preferred site for the facility, it has not yet settled on a location or done an environmental assessment.
Bill Kucharski, county environmental management director, said the 25 acres could be added to the conservation easement if the plant isn’t built there.
“It’s easy to add it to conservation,” he said. “It’s not easy to take it away. That’s why we’re saying it’s a tentative move to allow us look and study this some more.”
The facility itself would occupy about 15 acres. The additional space would allow the county to reroute a storm water culvert, Kucharski said.
The Legacy Land Conservation Commission is supporting the grant amendment.
The county also is seeking to build a wastewater treatment plant in Pahala to replace another large-capacity cesspool. That process is further along, with a draft environmental assessment completed.
Kucharski said finalizing that EA is being delayed by the partial federal shutdown since it requires review by the EPA.
The county agreed to support acquisition of the Waikapuna site with the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation fund, also known as PONC, to prevent it from being developed. It’s the first time the funds will be used to support preservation through a conservation easement, rather than outright purchase by the county.
Kaakua said the trust will buy the property and then transfer it to Ala Kahakai, which will enter into the conservation easement with the county.
The county’s financial contribution will come from compensating the buyer for the loss of development rights as a result of the easement.
The current owner has developed plans to subdivide the property but is interested in selling it for conservation.