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'Pick and Choose'

Some say the agency heavily scrutinizes its critics while violations by others are overlooked

By Rob Perez

LAST UPDATED: 4:32 p.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014

This story has been corrected. See below.


ANAHOLA, Kauai » For several years, Robin Danner has been a persistent critic of top administrators at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

She has openly questioned their decisions, accused them of abuse of power, and several months ago publicly opposed the confirmation of Jobie Masa­ga­tani, the department's director.

Danner, a Native Hawaiian homesteader unafraid to speak her mind, apparently is paying the price for being so vocal.

A beachfront project established here by a homesteaders-controlled nonprofit she heads has attracted heightened scrutiny from DHHL even as violations involving other department lands have been all but ignored, according to Native Hawaiian beneficiaries, including two who sit on the Hawaiian Homes Commission, the body that oversees the department.

"It seems obvious to me that the hurdles placed in front of her have been unfair," said Ian Lee Loy, a commissioner from the Big Island. He was referring to the requirements the department has imposed on a youth camp that Danner's Homestead Community Development Corp. is developing on a 5-acre parcel at Ana­hola Bay. The organization has a month-to-month revocable permit from DHHL to use the site.

The level of scrutiny given Kumu Camp has been ridiculous, according to Lee Loy, a Hawaii County police detective. He noted, for instance, that DHHL asked to see building permits for the camp's so-called tentalows because of the "preposterous" claim that "the tent could be blown away with users in them," according to an email he sent to Masa­ga­tani in February.

"I can smell stink stuff when it's there," Lee Loy told the Star-Advertiser in a telephone interview recently.

Beneficiaries critical of the department say the scrutiny Danner's group is getting is not surprising.

They say DHHL at best is inconsistent in how it treats land users and beneficiaries and at worst engages in double standards, dealing more harshly with those not in the department's favor.



A state senator is among beneficiaries who are able to get undeveloped ranch or farmland without having to wait years for a homesteading lot.
Native Hawaiians hold only about a third of DHHL revocable permits.

"Forked tongue? Double standard? Yes," said Renwick "Uncle Joe" Tassil, another DHHL commissioner who, like Lee Loy, has pushed for reforms. "There is no policy, no system — just pick and choose for those to benefit, those to abuse."

Tassil and LEE Loy were among the four commissioners who took the unusual step to publicly oppose Masa­ga­tani's confirmation earlier this year. Masa­ga­tani was appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie as DHHL director and commission chairwoman.

DHHL denies singling out Danner or targeting people who criticize the agency.

"There is unequivocally no intention by this department or this administration to target any of its critics," Deputy Director Darrell Young said in written responses to Star-Advertiser questions. "DHHL has to prioritize its investigations based on its limited resources. DHHL has received an extraordinary number of complaints regarding the Kumu Camp project."

A Star-Advertiser analysis of how Danner's group has been treated compared with several other revocable permit holders shows a distinct difference in levels of scrutiny.

When DHHL received complaints about construction activities at the Kumu Camp site, for instance, the department sent a representative to the property to investigate.

But when Danner and Lorraine Rapozo, president of the Ana­hola Hawaiian Homes Association, the parent group of Danner's nonprofit, complained in 2010 about a sitting commissioner, Stuart Hanchett, living in an unauthorized home on Kauai land that he was leasing from DHHL, the department sent no one to investigate.

The revocable permit Hanchett had — and still has — for the 316 acres of ranch land in Moloaa prohibits residential use. Hanchett, who left the commission in mid-2011, recently told the Star-Advertiser he knew he wasn't supposed to build a home there but did so anyway so he could live on the property to combat a theft and vandalism problem. As of last week Hanchett still lived there.

When Lee Loy and another commissioner, Kama Hopkins, in February emailed Masa­ga­tani to bring up the Hanchett matter, no one was sent to the site to investigate then, either.

And when a DHHL staff member visited the Kumu Camp parcel recently to inspect it, the staffer did not go to the Moloaa property, which is less than 10 miles away.

The department only recently started investigating the Hanchett issue after the Star-Advertiser began inquiring about the case.

When asked why the issue wasn't investigated in 2010, Young said he couldn't speculate about the actions of previous DHHL administrations. In November 2010 DHHL was headed by Kaulana Park, who was appointed by then-Gov. Linda Lingle. Park would not comment.

But even though the department was run by Park at the time, the person who headed DHHL's land management division, which oversees the revocable-permit program, is the same person who heads it today: Linda Chinn.

Chinn did not offer the Star-Advertiser an explanation about why the matter had not been investigated for 21⁄2 years.

Another difference in treatment focused on requests for licenses, which are longer-term rental agreements that enable the tenant to build permanent structures and get financing, and provide other advantages over month-to-month permits. Such licenses are geared for nonprofits and utility-related uses.

When Danner's nonprofit requested a license for the beachfront parcel, it was denied, and a revocable permit was approved instead, she said.

But when Hanchett in 2010 sought to convert his revocable permit to a 20-year license for his newly formed nonprofit, Chinn recommended to the commission that it be approved — without resolving the question about the unauthorized house. The commission never voted on the proposal.

DHHL also rejected a request by Danner's group to use a 3-acre sliver of beachfront property adjacent to both the camp parcel and a row of million-dollar homes. One homeowner who has been using the DHHL land said no one from the department has contacted him about the property in the three years he's owned the home.

Beneficiaries cited other cases to illustrate what they said was a double standard.

Rapozo, the association president, said her group complained for at least 15 to 20 years about the condition of a DHHL parcel, known as Camp Faith, adjacent to the Kumu Camp site. But the department didn't take action against the tenant, Lihue First Church, until last year, after Rapozo's group lodged a complaint in writing, beneficiaries said.

The church's revocable permit was terminated in June, and the church vacated the site in August.

Young said the first written request to deal with the Camp Faith property was received by Rapozo's group in April 2012, prompting the investigation that led to the permit revocation.

Beneficiaries also point to the case involving what is known as Correa Ranch in Wai­ma­nalo.

The commission in March 2009 revoked the permit issued to brothers Weston and Nowlin Correa, citing multiple violations. The case was referred to the attorney general's office for possible eviction action.

But today, more than four years later, the Correas still are using the property. DHHL and the attorney general's office declined comment. Nowlin Correa did not respond to requests for comment.

If any potential violations are found at Kumu Camp, the department likely would not wait months or years to act, beneficiaries said.

Rapozo said DHHL officials have treated Danner unfairly because they despise her. "It really saddens me," she said.

Lee Loy, the commissioner, likewise said any project involving Danner seems to be met with resistance at the department.

Young said DHHL sent a staffer to the Kumu Camp site because of multiple concerns raised by area residents, particularly during excavation and construction work there.

While saying the department appreciates what the homestead group has done at the campsite, Young cited more than half a dozen concerns about the project, including failing to submit plans for department approval before building permanent structures.

Young said the agency "would like to work with them on resolving these outstanding issues."

Danner, who considers herself an advocate for Hawaiians, not a DHHL critic, said her group already has addressed each of the concerns, including submitting plans to the department for what she characterized as temporary structures.

But every step of the way, she added, her group has faced one obstacle after another.

"DHHL has given us nothing but grief," Danner said.

CORRECTION: The first name of Weston Correa was misspelled in the original version of this article.

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