KAILUA-KONA — The final year of the decade — 2019 — may have flown by, but there was still plenty of time for big news on the Big Island.
From the impasse on Maunakea over the construction the Thirty Meter Telescope and the recovery from the last effects of the devastating to 2018 Kilauea Volcano Eruption to the launch of new flights to Kona and outside-the-box-thinking to address homelessness, the plethora of news stories hitting the web and press made choosing the year’s top 10 difficult for West Hawaii Today’s editorial staff.
But, here they are for our readers to reflect upon as we head into a prosperous — and vog-free — new year and new decade. Hau‘oli Makahiki Hou!
1. Impasse on Maunakea
On Dec. 26, for the first time since July, demonstrators opposing the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope vacated the Maunakea Access Road, thanks to an agreement with Mayor Harry Kim that allowed for resumption of public access to the summit as of Dec. 28.
The protesters, called kia‘i, or protectors of Maunakea, remain on the side of the roadway. The agreement, which gives Kim’s word that no TMT construction equipment will attempt to ascend Maunakea, nor will there be any further attempt by police to remove protesters from their camp, is to remain in effect until at least the end of February.
The protest of the planned $1.4 billion telescope on Maunakea began in mid-July after Ige on July 10 announced the DLNR issued a notice to proceed to the University of Hawaii at Hilo to allow construction of the telescope to begin after the Hawaii Supreme Court affirmed approval of the project’s conservation district use permit. Ige declared a state of emergency, which would allow him to activate the Hawaii National Guard, although mobilization of citizen-service members didn’t take place.
Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope say the project will desecrate land held scared to Native Hawaiians. There are already 13 telescopes on the mountain.
Within days of the protest getting underway in mid-July, dozens of mostly Native Hawaiian elders were arrested for blocking the road. As many as 3,000 people estimated at the protest site on some weekends as the movement gained traction via social media. Celebrities, including actors Jason Momoa and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and musicians Jack Johnson and Damien Marley, visited the mauna to show their support.
While the protest ensued, police officers assigned to the Thirty Meter Telescope blockade and encampment on Maunakea Access Road stepped-up traffic enforcement efforts on Daniel K. Inouye Highway. From Aug. 15 to Dec. 18, officers netted 8,234 citations and arrested 78 people for 143 offenses.
The county racked up about $5 million in expenditures related to TMT enforcement, and Assistant Chief Samuel Thomas told the Police Commission on Dec. 20 the department is $3 million over budget, mostly because of police overtime related to the enforcement. The County Council rejected a five-year, $10 million deal offered by the state to reimburse the county for TMT expenses because of ambiguous terms and the open-ended nature of the deal.
The protest is the latest against the Thirty Meter Telescope, which selected Maunakea in 2009 as the site for the telescope following a worldwide search. Protests disrupted a groundbreaking and Hawaiian blessing ceremony at the TMT site in 2014. After that, the demonstrations intensified, and construction was stopped in April 2015 and again a few months later resulting in the arrests of dozens of protesters.
2. Vacation rental rules adopted
Thanks to the Hawaii County’s new vacation rental law, which went into effect in April, short-term vacation rental properties — defined as rentals where the owner does not reside, are rented for less than 30 days and have no more than five bedrooms — are prohibited outside of resort or commercially zoned areas.
But creating the rules for the law didn’t come without heated debate. Hundreds were drawn to county meetings and public hearings in the spring to speak out on both sides of the issue. Some see nonhosted rentals as an important part of the island’s tourist economy while others say they change the character of residential neighborhoods or lower the quality of life.
Owners of existing short-term rentals in the excluded zones had to apply for a nonconforming use permit by Sept. 30. By that key deadline an estimated 4,000 applications had come in with about 1,150 of those in nonconforming zones.
Hawaii County was the last in the state to regulate short-term rentals in residential neighborhoods.
3. Lava recovery
Hawaii Island — particularly East Hawaii — spent 2019 recovering from the aftermath of the Kilauea Volcano eruption that for three months spewed lava, destroying more than 700 homes and structures, and displacing about 3,000 residents in lower Puna forever and forever changing the island’s landscape.
In early December, Hawaii County learned the 2018 Kilauea volcano eruption cost the county $796 million in economic damage, according to an estimate from the Kilauea Eruption Recovery Team. The team arrived at the number by considering losses incurred by the tourism industry, the related loss of jobs, and the destruction of farms, homes and other infrastructure during the eruption.
The loss of tourism revenue accounted for $450 million of the total, while infrastructure damage totaled another $236 million. The team also calculated that 4,727 jobs were lost because of the eruption, and 46 farms were destroyed or rendered unusable.
However, numbers released in late December indicate the hotel and tourism industries that took major hits from the natural disasters in 2018 as both appeared to be taking off, posting record-breaking numbers for the first four months of the year, made strides toward recovery in 2019.
Through the first 11 months of the year, compared with 2018, Hawaii Island saw visitor arrivals increase 3.2% to 1.6 million though visitor spending was down 2.8% to $2.06 billion. The month of November reported growth in all areas, including overall and daily spending, days spent on the island and arrivals.
Hotel occupancy during that period was up over 2018 numbers with 76.8% of Hawaii Island’s hotel rooms occupied, up 1.8% from 2018 and 2.1% from 2017.
From January through November 2017, Hawaii Island recorded visitor spending of $2.15 billion with more than 1.58 million arriving on the island. That represented double-digit growth from 2016, which was partially attributed to the launch of new nonstop service to Kona.
4. Recycling woes
Cutbacks to the county’s recycling program in October raised concerns throughout the island, particularly after the realization that an additional 3,100 tons of recyclables once diverted from the waste stream will enter the Big Island’s now-lone landfill each year under the changes.
The county announced Sept. 30 that it would no longer accept paper and plastic products at its two-bin recycling facilities starting Oct. 16. Now, only corrugated cardboard, paper shopping bags and non-HI-5 glass products are accepted at the bins at county transfer stations. Redemption of HI-5 beverage containers continues.
The changes were necessary to keep parts of the recycling program going after the contractor hired to handle recycling, Business Services Hawaii, notified the county it couldn’t afford to continue its $1.1 million annual contract at the current rate.
But those alterations left the public wanting to do good by Mother Earth with a conundrum as any other waste — including all plastic products — has to be disposed of elsewhere.
That spurred waste-reduction and recycling initiatives around the island as people and groups took matters into their own hands. One group, Puna Precious Plastic, a part of the Precious Plastic worldwide movement that began in 2013 in the Netherlands, collected about 1,000 pounds it planned to sort, shred and then melt into plastic bricks and lumber for construction.
Luckily, by the time the cutback came to the recycling program the county had already banned the use of polystyrene containers as of July 1 with the hope of reducing tonnage ending up in landfills. The law establishes fines and applies to all commercial restaurants and fast-food establishments, food vendors at county functions and on county property and members of the public who secure permits to use county-run pavilions, parks, cabins and other facilities.
And the 392-page Integrated Solid Waste Management Plan unveiled Dec. 8 makes 82 specific recommendations for changes to the county’s waste management systems. The plan is still a draft version, and public comments are open until Feb. 4, with public hearings Jan. 21 in Hilo and Jan. 23 in Kona.
5. GET hiked again
Hawaii County residents and visitors will have to dig a few more pennies out of their pockets for goods and services starting Jan. 1, after the County Council passed a half-cent general excise tax surcharge, replacing the one-quarter percent approved last year.
The tax, which expires in 2030, will add an estimated $50 million annually to the county budget, compared to about $25 million now collected.
The county surcharge is in addition to the state’s existing 4% GET tax rate, bringing the total tax rate to 4.712%, up from the current rate of 4.4386%.
The Hawaii County Council approved the surcharge increase in March, only about two weeks before a state deadline to pass such a hike. The tax is charged on nearly all products on the island, save for federal food assistance programs, prescription drugs and prosthetic devices.
6. Handling homelessness
A good amount of action took place in 2019 regarding homelessness and the issues that surround it on the Big Island this year, though much remains to be done in 2020 and for years to come to ultimately get people off the streets.
Though the annual Homeless Point In Time Count indicated homelessness was down statewide, including on the Big Island where the number of homeless counted on a January night was 690, down from 869 in 2018, that didn’t appear the case in some areas, including in Kailua-Kona where numerous encampments had cropped up around town fueling frustration and embarrassment among residents, visitors and business owners alike.
In April, the county and state undertook a sizable effort to cleanup and removal illegal campsites in Kailua-Kona. Dozens of truckloads of garbage were removed from camps, including the most visible one at the intersection of Queen Kaahumanu Highway and Palani Road where 10 people and 10 truckloads of trash were removed.
That same month, the community gathered to brainstorm Village 9, Hawaii County’s ohana zone-backed homeless housing project. The county expects to begin construction on the emergency housing portion of the project this spring after opening a men’s shelter in the old Hilo Hospital in November.
By June, frustration with the situation presented by homelessness in Kailua-Kona had reached a tipping point, and a local business owner convened meetings that drew dozens to discuss the issue and bring county officials before the public to find a solution together.
It got the ball rolling and people talking, including to West Hawaii Today insomuch that the newspaper revealed security issues in the tourism core of Kailua Village, leading to the outside-the-box kind of thinking needed to address the issue.
That renewed energy has resulted in programs like the Hawaii Police Department’s HONOUR (Homeless Outreach Nurturing Our Community) Program that works to integrate the homeless back into the community by having them work on projects under positive guidance. An inaugural cleanup project that occurred in November attracted 40 community members, including eight homeless individuals.
7. Keahuolu Courthouse opens
The $95.8 million Keahuolu Courthouse opened to the public on Sept. 3, bringing court operations scattered across several sites in North Kona and South Kona finally under one roof.
With five courtrooms — and a footprint for expansion to seven — the three-story, 140,000-square-foot judiciary complex is designed to meet the community’s needs through at least 2030. It’s a stark contrast to the Judiciary’s now-former Kona court facilities that comprised just 32,000 square feet.
Talk of a centralized courthouse for Kona dated back to the 1990s when, for a short period, a new judicial facility for the area appeared close to becoming reality before somehow dropping from the Judiciary’s priority list. The effort to construct a courthouse in Kona was renewed in 2009 with funding being secured thereafter and construction commencing in October 2016.
8. Southwest comes to Kona
In February, Southwest Airlines gets approval to fly to Hawaii following the end of the federal government shutdown and announces plan to begin service to and within the Aloha State in March.
The airline launched service between Oakland, California, and Kahului on April 7 and started flying between Honolulu and San Jose, California, in May. Southwest’s interisland service kicked off at the end of April when it began flying between Honolulu and Maui. Service between Honolulu and Kailua-Kona began in May.
New interisland flights between Hilo and Honolulu, as well as from Lihue, Kauai, to Honolulu will be available four times daily in each direction beginning Jan. 19. Additionally, nonstop flights between Kona to Kahului, Maui, will be offered once a day in each direction beginning that day.
New daily service between Sacramento, California, and Honolulu, and nonstop flights from Oakland and San Jose, California, to both Lihue and Kona also begin this month.
9. Kim vetoes herbicide ban
Mayor Harry Kim on Dec. 12 exercised his first veto of this term, sending a ban on county herbicide use back to the County Council.
Bill 101 would, over a four-year period, ban the use of Roundup and 22 other weed killers in parks and alongside roads, bike-ways, sidewalks, trails, drainage-ways and waterways owned or maintained by the county.
The bill in November passed 6-3, the minimum yes votes to override a veto, under the county charter. The council can still hold an override vote within 30 days of the mayor’s action.
The mayor cited in his veto of the bill regulatory concerns over whether it’s the federal, state or local government’s jurisdiction, as well as operational concerns in changing how the county handles weeds. He also offered suggestions that would make the bill acceptable to the administration.
– First medical marijuana dispensaries open: Hawaii Island’s first medical marijuana dispensary opened Jan. 16 in Hilo, providing patients on the Big Island a legal way to purchase the drug for the first time since 2000 when Hawaii legalized medical marijuana. The state legalized dispensaries in 2015, though the first of eight dispensaries across Hawaii didn’t open until August 2017 on Maui.
Thereafter, the dispensaries spread west with Big Island Grown opening a retail center in Waimea in March. Kailua-Kona’s first medical marijuana dispensary opened in late June with Hawaiian Ethos in the Kaloko Light Industrial Area. Big Island Grown opened its third location the following month at Brewery Block. Hawaiian Ethos plans to open a second location in Hilo followed by a third in a not-yet-determined locale on the island.
– Kua Bay gets lifeguards: Nearly 15 years after access to the state beach park was improved, funding is approved for four full-time lifeguards and equipment to patrol the popular, yet perilous Kua Bay. Acting quickly to get the lifeguards on the beach as the start of the fiscal year on July 1, Mayor Harry Kim moved an existing lifeguard tower to the North Kona Park to house the lifesavers.
Kua Bay once required a lengthy hike in or a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access until 2005 when a nearby developer completed paved access to and amenities at the site as part of a community benefit assessment. The effort to bring full-time life-saving personnel to the beach began in 2013.
– Kona Community Aquatic Center closure: Kona Community Aquatic Center, Hawaii County’s most-used aquatic facility, reopened Oct. 22 following a lengthy over-the-summer closure prompted the March 1 failure of the pool’s sand filtration system that keeps the water clean in both the adult Olympic-size and smaller keiki pools. It was the first such failure since the pool opened in April 1994, and cost $243,000 to repair.
Remembering those we’ve lost:
As in any year, in 2019 there were a number of notable Big Island people who took their final bows. They include: KTA Super Stores chairman and community benefactor Barry Taniguchi; former County Parks and Recreation Director George Yoshida, who became a public figure as co-host of KTA’s “Seniors Living in Paradise” public access TV program; Virginia Isbell, a former politician, public servant and pillar of the Kona community; Dave Mahon, an 18-year veteran of the Hawaii Fire Department Bo Campos, affectionately known by those in the paddling community as “Uncle Bo;” Flora “Tita” Leiomalama Desha Beamer Solomon, a fourth-generation hula loea; Elroy Osorio, former County Board of Supervisors chairman and councilman, beloved volleyball official and sportsman; radio and television personality Jacqueline “Skylark” Rossetti, who had a longtime association with the Merrie Monarch Festival; “Aunty Maile” Mauhili, a prominent canoe paddler, coach and race organizer as well as longtime security presence on the Hilo High School campus; Fumi Bonk, a community leader on Hawaii Island, and a behind-the-scenes political leader across the state; and William “Will” Ing, a retired Hawaii Tribune-Herald photographer who took the newspaper’s images from the darkroom to the digital age.
Hawaii Island’s art community was especially hard hit in 2019 by the deaths of artists Linus Chao, Robert Thomas Kitchen and Shingo Honda — all of whom will long be remembered through their work.
The Hawaii Tribune-Herald contributed to this report.