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Mend fences and make Makaha land gift work

LAST UPDATED: 2:23 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

This is Hawaii, so nothing is ever simple where land is concerned.

But there's no reason the proposed land gift from developer Jeff Stone had to be this complicated, pushed to the point of unraveling. And there's no reason it can't be resuscitated, despite the blame game now going full-tilt, and despite the looming deadline later this week. The deal, Stone said, will be nullified unless the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands and Kamehameha Schools both accept their parcels by Thursday.

An agreement reached in March 2010 would have Stone donating 300 acres of Makaha Valley land — 234 to DHHL for badly needed affordable homes and 66 to Kamehameha for the creation of an adjacent learning center.

As Star-Advertiser stories recapped this past week, these would be wonderful assets for the Leeward Coast. The need for affordable homes is critical for all, but DHHL is rightly motivated to build these units to move more families off its long waiting list of Hawaiian beneficiaries.

Further, the "learning community" Kamehameha Schools envisioned sounds fantastic, equipped with multimedia and computer facilities, a library, a teacher learning center, a dining hall, athletic fields, a pool, gardens and a taro loi for instruction in the culture and business of farming. The nonprofit trust targets Native Hawaiians' educational needs, but the area's public school students of all ethnicities would have been able to use the center.

Unfortunately, there's been evidence of dysfunction all around. First of all, DHHL should have sharpened its focus on closing the deal. Officials have not made the case that the original Feb. 11 deadline for the agency to do its due diligence on the land and accept it couldn't have been met. It was an arbitrary date but not an unreasonable amount of time to complete whatever soil studies and consultation with DHHL beneficiaries the department needed to do. Having so much on the line should have sparked a greater sense of urgency.

Relations soured further when it became clear Kamehameha Schools wanted to amend the deal into a "Plan B" approach: Kamehameha would pay Stone $8 million for the whole 300 acres, consolidating ownership of the whole parcel and negating the gift aspect of the deal. DHHL would still build the homes, but would turn over the affordable-housing credits — worth many millions of dollars — to Kamehameha. Trust officials said they had hoped to keep the deal alive, and perhaps later to apply the credits toward its planned Kakaako condominium project, lessening that cost.

Normally, there's nothing wrong with Kamehameha officials working for a better outcome — that's their fiduciary duty — butthat can be delicate where donations are concerned. Looking a gift horse in the mouth runs the risk of causing the horse to bolt. Clearer communications among all three parties might have averted the present stand-off.

Finally, the giver himself ought to reconsider the threat of taking his ball and going home. Most deadlines can be extended, if good-faith efforts are being made to finish what should have been a quicker process. Late Friday, all sides seemed headed toward the original terms.

A little more than a year ago, the prospect of a community where people live and learn together sounded so rosy — especially on the Leeward Coast, which rarely seems to catch a break. It's hard to accept that such a win-win proposition could be allowed to slip away.

So the three parties must not accept it. Brew a strong pot of coffee, people, and burn some midnight oil. The community needs this. Just get it done.

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