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No Wait Necessary

About two dozen beneficiaries hold revocable leases, bypassing others who never hear of opportunities

By Rob Perez

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


State Sen. Malama Solomon, former Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Commissioner Stuart Hanchett and about 20 other Native Hawaiians are members of an exclusive group.

While on DHHL waitlists for ranching or farming homestead lots, they obtained month-to-month revocable permits for pastoral or agriculture land from the agency, according to a Star-Advertiser analysis of DHHL data.

The moves allowed Solo­mon, Hanchett and the others, who (with one exception) were nowhere near the top of their lists, to start farming or ranching on trust lands right away, forgoing a years-long wait while keeping their place on the homestead lists.

Some beneficiaries say a system that enables a few people to bypass long waits as others ahead of them languish for years without getting any land is not right and needs to be changed.

"It's definitely not fair," said Kipu­Kai Kua­lii, who has been waiting for nearly 30 years for an agricultural homestead lot on Kauai.

Questions about the fairness of the first-come, first-served process add more weight to beneficiary concerns that DHHL's revocable-permit program is broken. A Star-Advertiser investigation has found that the program suffers from a lack of published rules, lax oversight and selective enforcement, and some beneficiaries say the flaws reflect not just incompetence, but corruption.

"I think it's purposeful," said Maui beneficiary Blossom Fei­teira, president of the Association of Hawaiians for Homestead Lands. "It's mind-boggling."

DHHL's main program for getting beneficiaries into homes is through homestead leases, which include agricultural and pastoral ones. The revocable permits generally are for land that lacks infrastructure and is not suitable for homesteading but can be used for ranching and other purposes.

Beneficiaries told the Star-Advertiser that DHHL should establish a fairer process for awarding revocable permits, offering them first to Native Hawaiians and giving beneficiaries at the top of the waitlists first crack at any ranch or farming lands that become available.

That is especially important given that the permits can last years and that so few ranch or farming homestead leases have been issued over the past several decades, according to beneficiaries. On Kauai, for instance, no new agricultural or pastoral leases have been awarded since 1986.

In response to the Star-Advertiser's findings, the department is placing a 60- to 90-day moratorium on the issuing of any new revocable permits and will look for ways to make the awards more transparent and productive, according to Deputy Director Darrell Young. As part of that review, the agency will re-examine how awards are decided and to whom they are offered.

Young noted, however, that revocable-permit land is offered "as is" and typically has no infrastructure, making the property unsuitable for homestead use.

If the land's projected development is many years away, it potentially could be leased out through the permit program.

When DHHL offers land for pastoral or agriculture homestead leases, which last 99 years, it typically provides the infrastructure. But funding problems have slowed such work.

For residential homesteads, the cost of providing roads, water and sewer ranges from roughly $170,000 to about $500,000 per lot, depending on the terrain, according to DHHL.

Though DHHL has no published rules about the revocable-permit process, someone who is the first to ask about a parcel the department determines can be rented out on a short-term basis typically will get the land, according to department officials.

In the cases of Solo­mon and Hanchett, both beneficiaries told the Star-Advertiser that the department approached them to ask whether they were interested in renting particular parcels, and they accepted the offers.

Solomon is paying 99 cents an acre per month for 106 acres in Wai­mea on Hawaii island. The parcel, with green rolling hills and ocean views, is above Hawaii Preparatory Academy, the most expensive private school in the state. Solo­mon has had the permit since 2000.

Hanchett, who served on the Hawaiian Homes Commission from 2005 to 2011, is paying $1.84 an acre monthly for 316 acres in Moloaa on Kauai. Hanchett received a permit for the land, which also features rolling hills and ocean views, in 2003, well before he became a commissioner.

When Hanchett received the permit, he was far from the top of the waitlist for a ranching homestead lot on Kauai. At the end of 2011 he was No. 187, DHHL data show, still facing a years-long wait. He applied for the homestead in 2001.

At the end of 2011, Solo­mon was No. 74 on a pastoral waitlist for Hawaii island. She applied in 1981.

More than 26,000 applicants are on waitlists for homestead lots statewide, and the majority are seeking agricultural or farming land.

Alan Murakami, a Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. attorney, said beneficiaries who use the system to get permit land quickly should not be condemned, given the failures of the state to fulfill its mission of adequately funding DHHL and getting people onto homestead lots more quickly.

Murakami agreed that the first-come, first-served nature of the program and a lack of transparency "basically victimizes the ignorant."

Hanchett said he had been repeatedly inquiring about the possibility of securing a parcel elsewhere on Kauai when the Moloaa one became available, and the department asked whether he was interested in that lot. He said he did not benefit from any inside knowledge of the program.

But Kauai beneficiaries said those at the top of the pastoral waitlists would have liked to have had a shot at getting the Moloaa land.

DHHL, however, does not have a public process for letting beneficiaries know that land is available on a month-to-month basis.

Asked whether he thought the system was unfair, Hanchett replied, "Maybe so. But it wasn't my fault. Up to that point I was just following the rules and regulations."

DHHL is investigating Hanchett for what he acknowledged to the newspaper is an unauthorized home he built on the Moloaa property before he became a commissioner. The revocable permit prohibits residential use.

Solomon said the department offered her a permit for the Wai­mea parcel because the property was landlocked by an adjacent 125-acre pastoral homestead lot issued to her mother, Flora Solo­mon. The elder Solo­mon moved to the Wai­mea lot in 1997.

Besides Solomon and Hanchett, the Star-Advertiser found about 20 other beneficiaries who have month-to-month permits for ranching or farming property while on homestead waitlists for that type of land, according to the newspaper's analysis of DHHL data through June 2012.

One beneficiary was 3,000-deep on an agriculture list when she obtained a permit for five farming acres on the Big Island in 2010. Getting permit land doesn't affect one's status on the waitlist.

Of the nearly two dozen who obtained permits, Hanchett and Solo­mon received the largest parcels by far.

Their rent also was the cheapest — not unexpected given that larger parcels, on a per-acre basis, tend to be priced lower than smaller lots involving the same general use.

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