A home built on Kauai ranch land breaks lease rules, but officials have let the violation go uncorrected
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, May 5, 2013
LAST UPDATED: 4:32 p.m. HST, Feb 12, 2014
FIRST OF 3 PARTS
MOLOAA, Kauai >> The violation was blatant and easy to verify.
Sometime before he became a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands commissioner in 2005, Stuart Hanchett built an unauthorized home here on 316 acres of ranch land he was leasing from the agency.
His month-to-month rental agreement, called a revocable permit, prohibited any residential use.
But when two Kauai beneficiaries in November 2010 raised the issue with the Hawaiian Homes Commission, while Hanchett was still a member, top administrators at the department did not investigate.
It would have been simple to confirm the violation.
A site visit and an online search of aerial photos — both of which the Star-Advertiser did recently — would have shown the home to be in the middle of DHHL property.
Darrell Young, the agency's deputy director, said DHHL checked Google maps in 2010, but the location of the home relative to the property boundaries was unclear. Up to that point the department was under the assumption that Hanchett had received permission to build the home on a neighboring, privately owned parcel, according to Young and Linda Chinn, the administrator who oversees the department's nonhomestead lease programs.
But instead of sending a staff member to the site to check on the location in 2010, the department apparently dropped the matter. And Chinn recommended that the commission approve Hanchett's request to convert the revocable permit to a 20-year license to a nonprofit he had just formed to take over a fledgling youth camp on the ranch.
Under the proposed deal, Hanchett's Pualani Foundation would have paid about 2.5 cents an acre per month for the first year, substantially less than the $1.84 he was paying at the time. After the first year, the rent would have increased to $1.84 for the next four years and to an undetermined level after that. The commission never voted on the proposal.
Today, Hanchett, 65, still lives in the home and ranches the land, which county records show is worth more than $8 million. He raises livestock and hosts occasional youth groups, including at-risk Native Hawaiian children, at the ranch.
Only after the Star-Advertiser began asking about the Hanchett home last month did the agency say it would investigate.
It offered no explanation on why it failed to do so before then, enabling Hanchett to continue living on the parcel.
Beneficiaries cite the Hanchett case as a prime example of what they say is a favoritism problem that taints the revocable-permit program and other aspects of DHHL's operations.
When the Star-Advertiser first asked DHHL about the home in April, Chinn said the location problem still was unresolved. "Whether that house is on our property, it's questionable," she said in an interview.
Yet the agency's Kauai land manager, Kaipo Duncan, who works for Chinn, already seemed to have answered that question several years earlier. In a November 2010 email, Duncan noted that the license agreement clearly stated that no residential use was permitted and that Hanchett had agreed to move off the property.
Asked about that email, Young said it didn't necessarily mean that DHHL had confirmed the existence of "an offending structure."
In response to the Star-Advertiser's inquiry, Young said Hanchett would get a letter from DHHL about the "alleged illegal dwelling" and, if shown to be true, would be asked to correct the violation. If that didn't happen, the permit would be terminated, Young said.
Hanchett, a retired airline worker, told the Star-Advertiser that he knew he wasn't allowed to build a home under the terms of the revocable permit, which was issued in April 2003. But he said he did so anyway, without telling DHHL, because of a persistent theft and vandalism problem that threatened to sink his ranching operation.
DHHL had told him he had to solve the problem himself, according to Hanchett. "The only option I had was to create a presence on the property itself," he added. "I did not know any other way to resolve that problem."
Hanchett said he knew all along that the home would never be his and that he would have to give it up whenever the revocable permit ended.
"I never intended to make this my permanent home," he said. "What I wanted to do was to serve the youth on the island. That was my primary reason. All I wanted to do was to give back to the Hawaiian community."
Asked what he would do if he's forced to give up his home, Hanchett had a quick response. "If that's what they require, I will do it," he said. "I love this property too much."