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'Anti-beneficiary' practices met with scorn

More Native Hawaiians should hold nonhomestead properties, critics say

By Rob Perez

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

For the past 17 years, James and Jane Saku­gawa have rented roughly 5,000 acres of ranch property on Maui from the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

That is 80 percent of all land DHHL is leasing to tenants on that island through its revocable-permit program.

Yet the Saku­ga­was are not Native Hawaiian beneficiaries.

The fact that two nonbeneficiaries control most of the permit land on Maui underscores a major complaint among Native Hawaiians. They say too few of the agency's nonhomestead properties are in the hands of beneficiaries, the people the department is supposed to be getting onto trust land.

"It's been a thorn in beneficiaries' side," said Blossom Fei­teira, a Maui homesteader and president of the Association of Hawaiians for Homestead Lands. "This isn't fair, but it's been going on for years."

Only 65 of the 178 revocable permits, or 36 percent, are held by beneficiaries, according to DHHL data.

For general leases, which are longer-term rental agreements for nonhomestead land, the picture is far worse. Only 17 of 126 accounts, or 13 percent, are held by Native Hawaiian individuals or organizations.

Given DHHL's purpose of getting Native Hawaiians (with at least 50 percent blood quantum) onto homesteads, beneficiaries say they should get first crack at any nonhomestead lands made available for leasing, even if on a month-to-month basis.

But the department seems to favor nonbeneficiary tenants, including by making beneficiaries jump through extra hoops just to be considered for nonhomestead properties, according to Fei­teira and others.

"It's very anti-beneficiary," she said of DHHL practices.

DHHL used to have a policy, adopted in 1981, that gave preference to Native Hawaiians in the issuing of general leases. But the commission rescinded that preference in 2001, citing high termination rates involving Native Hawaiian lessees and other factors. The policy did not apply to revocable permits.

Maui beneficiaries over the years have asked to rent some of the 5,000 acres in Wai­ohuli held by the Saku­ga­was but have always been rebuffed by the department, according to Fei­teira. Revocable permits can be ended with just 30 days' notice. The Saku­ga­was are renting the land for 35 cents per acre monthly.

A family spokes­man would not comment, referring questions to DHHL.

Darrell Young, the agency's deputy director, said in written responses to Star-Advertiser questions that revocable permits are not meant to be substitutes for homestead leases.

But as part of their review of the permit program, DHHL officials will be re-examining all aspects to look for ways to improve it, Young said.

They also will be reviewing all permits, including the Saku­ga­was'.

While leasing so much land to one couple appears to be unfair, the development of the Wai­ohuli area is predicated on how much money DHHL will need to spend on infrastructure costs, Young said. That area, he noted, is hilly, rocky and subject to mudslides, and the high cost of development limits the number of beneficiary homes that can be built there.

The Sakugawas aren't the only nonbeneficiary ranchers to capitalize on the availability of inexpensive DHHL land.

Multiple for-profit companies on several islands are renting large tracts of pastoral land from the agency.

On the Big Island, for instance, Kahua Ranch in 2011 was awarded a revocable permit for 1,720 acres in Kawai­hae. The rent is 35 cents an acre monthly.

"There's no excuse not to give that land to Native Hawaiians. Absolutely none," said David Kimo Frankel, an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp.

Young said DHHL isn't legally required to give Native Hawaiians preferences for revocable permits, but that will be among the ideas considered in the department's review.

KipuKai Kualii, who has been waiting for nearly 30 years for an agriculture homestead lot on Kauai, said the shortchanging of Native Hawaiians comes as no surprise.

"They're ripping off beneficiaries in multiple ways," Kua­lii said.

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