Despite changes to lessen disturbance of graves, opponents still object to the building
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 3, 2011
Kawaiaha‘o Church resumed construction on a multipurpose building yesterday after making changes that include reducing the amount of ground excavation that could disturb unmarked graves.
Still, opposition to the project remains from some native Hawaiians with ancestors buried in the area, and protest demonstrations are expected.
Kawaiaha‘o Kahu Curt Kekuna said in a statement that discussions with opponents through the last few months led to significant design changes, though differences remain.
"Over the past three months, the church has genuinely tried to reach a resolution and to bridge differences, going so far as to implement changes to its plans, at considerable added expense to the church," Kekuna said. "Unfortunately, at this time we have been unable to resolve all of our differences, and we will be resuming excavation activities as permitted under state regulations and (a) court decision."
Construction of the $17.5 million multipurpose center for the Honolulu church known as "the Westminster Abbey of Hawaii" was halted two years ago after the church unearthed 69 sets of human remains while using heavy equipment mostly to dig utility line trenches.
Work was scheduled to resume in February after the church received approval from the state Department of Health to disinter any remains discovered, and a Circuit Court judge refused to block construction. But protests on the day work resumed in early February prompted the church to hold off.
The church began digging test trenches yesterday using hand shovels to sample the presence of any human remains. The test trenching is a requirement of the state Historic Preservation Division, which must be notified of any discoveries of bones, or iwi.
The potential for discoveries has been significantly reduced, church officials say, because of a redesigned foundation for the building that is 21⁄2 feet deep instead of six to eight feet under the previous design. Subterranean space for an emergency generator and air-conditioning equipment also was eliminated.
The church said meetings with project opponents will continue. However, some are adamant that no iwi be disturbed because native Hawaiian cultural traditions regard burials as sacrosanct.
"If they bring the shovels out, we're going to stop them," vowed Kamuela Kalai in February.
Kawaiaha‘o officials are asking that any demonstrations be conducted safely and respectfully off church property. The church has stationed several private security guards at property entrances.
Officials of Hawaii's oldest church and Christian cemetery contend that burials on the site should fall under the church's domain and be relocated to allow Kawaiaha‘o to improve its property.
A state law gives special protections to native Hawaiian burials that in some cases lead to iwi being left in place, but there is an exemption if burials are in known, maintained and actively used cemeteries. The law allows those remains to be moved.
Opponents of the Kawaiaha‘o expansion said the project site isn't part of an actively used cemetery.
The project site was formerly occupied by Likeke Hall, a church office building and a small parking lot.
A state judge agreed with the church that any inadvertent iwi discoveries are exempt from the state's native Hawaiian burial law, in part because the remains found so far were Christian burials of native Hawaiians mostly in coffins on church grounds. The Department of Health concurred and issued a blanket disinterment permit.
The multipurpose building has been in the works for more than five years.
The two-story facility is designed with classrooms, conference rooms, a $1 million kitchen, a library, bookstore, church archives and a small museum of church antiquities.