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Struggles mire living park

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Taro grows in the lush Kahana Valley in an area hand-cleared by Ron Johnson's family for generations.
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On October 2008, residents were given 72 hours to move belongings from Ahupua'a O Kahana Valley Park.
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Taro is shown growing in the valley in April 2009.
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More than 21 months later, Ervin Kahala surveyed the land he and others had cleared for cultural activities at Kahana Valley State Park.
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Ervin Kahala walked past signs protesting eviction at the Ahupua'a O Kahana Valley; he was among six families issued eviction notices by the state because of new rules applied to the land where some have lived for generations.
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In October 2008, Ervin Kahala walked past signs protesting eviction at the Ahupua'a O Kahana Valley; he was among six families issued eviction notices by the state because of new rules applied to the land where some have lived for generations.

A stop at lush Kahana Valley affords some cause for hope for a still-hazy, still-forming 30-year dream. The official-looking state park sign at the turn-in contrasts with the more friendly, hand-painted "Kids at Play" and "Drive with Aloha" signs. A mom cradles her infant as she joins other residents in an early-morning chat near the park entrance. Nearby houses, once abandoned, are now clearly active dwellings, with newer homes appearing about a mile up the paved road.

All are visual reminders that this is a neighborhood, as well as a "living park."

The bulletin board outside the community center, where the Kahana Planning Council meets regularly, still lists the July calendar of visiting groups that came for cultural classes on taro or fishpond practices.

But there’s conflict, as well as peace. The council is working on a master plan, spelling out detailed park rules, in the hopes that this time it will actually stick; the planning process has stalled for decades, with earlier efforts gathering dust on state shelves. There have been attempts at evictions, most recently in 2008.

There are some people so frustrated by these setbacks that they stand on the brink of throwing in the towel.

One of them is Laura Thielen.

"By 2007, it was pretty clear that the theory was not working in practice," she said.

Thielen is the director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the agency that runs the Ahupuaa o Kahana State Park, which encompasses the entire land-to-sea region, from the valley to the bay. The unique characteristic here: The others don’t have people living in them, 24/7.

The mission has proved to be difficult, the history painful (see timeline below). The most recent wounds: Two years ago, DLNR issued eviction notices for some residents living without leases. They were held off, and last year lawmakers put a two-year moratorium on evictions, directing the development of the elusive, essential part of implementing the park: completion of a master plan.

Then in July, residents engaged in landscaping work—which they say is a legitimate "living park" practice—were told that this is not permitted under their leases. The language of the lease itself is, arguably, ambiguous. Lessees are required to clear dead wood, briars, weeds, branches and "unsightly growth."

Thielen said eviction has been the only means of enforcing the lease, and now the state has neither legal nor financial means of managing the park.

"We have $8 million a year for all 68 of our parks and park reserves," she said. "State Parks is set up to run state parks, not be a landlord. We don’t have the expertise.

"I think the Legislature put unrealistic expectations on everybody," Thielen added.

One resident, Samuel Cheney, said the clearing of trees is necessary to keep foliage from overtaking areas. If this is a problem, he said, it’s because they’re working without guidance from the state.

"A lot of residents feel iffy about maintaining areas," he said. "It would be nice to have a set of rules to go by."

The ambiguity over Kahana Valley management produced a flurry of legislative activity in 2009, including proposed transfer of the oversight to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs or the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. But the centerpiece was Senate Bill 638, which finally passed, creating a moratorium and, it was hoped, some breathing space for a committee of residents to resurrect the master planning process.

Several residents testified in favor of the moratorium, but some didn’t, arguing that some curbs are needed. Some also point to the work residents do explaining the valley’s historic sites and cultivation practices. Plans are being made for a hale in which visitors could gather for talks.

Among the champions of current efforts is Ron Johnson, who at the hearing defended the parks division and the progress to date.

"I resent the negative impressions out there about Kahana," he said. "We have much to offer and we work at it."

Like most neighborhoods, Kahana has its share of internal conflicts and resentments. Some people believe those without leases should go; others think allowances should be made, especially for the grown children of the original lessees.

The district’s representatives at the Capitol acknowledge that there are problems but argue that the Lingle administration has been too quick to resort to eviction as its only conflict-resolution tool.

"I don’t understand how anyone can say that laws can’t be enforced in Kahana," said state Sen. Clayton Hee. "There’s a park employee that has the keys for access to the mountain. When laws are broken, they’re subject to the same laws everyone else is."

As for the six families without leases, he said, "two were in active negotiations, and one of the six had a loan approved."

State Rep. Jessica Wooley agreed that the state has resorted to draconian actions too readily, and that the residents’ planning council is meeting weekly on the master plan. With earlier versions commissioned by the state still collecting dust on shelves, she said, some residents are feeling empowered to give the effort new life.

"The community is finally having successes," she said. "That’s the story that I think should be told."

Wooley believes in the process. So does Luciano Minerbi, the urban planning professor at the University of Hawaii who’s done a lot of work on various plans and studies concerning Kahana. He wrote a letter opposing the evictions, advocating for much of the management to be handled by a local community organization, rather than "a bureaucracy in Honolulu."

"We have to make Kahana Valley and other ahupuaa like this work," he added in an e-mail to the Star-Advertiser.

Cheney is also a believer, but sitting closer to the process, he is willing to acknowledge that disagreements will have to be overcome, requiring navigation through shoals of basic human nature.

"There’s definitely conflict here, definitely families who don’t contribute," he said. "Nobody’s totally at fault, but nobody’s totally blameless, either."



Before Western contact: Kahana is a fishing and farming community, endowed with a fishpond, fresh water and fertile soil for cultivation of taro.

19th century: The Great Mahele in mid-century divides Kahana into parcels, the largest portion going to Annie Keohokalole, the mother of King Kalakaua. The alii portion changes hands in land transactions among Chinese merchants and, by 1874, a land hui.

1920: By now, most of the valley is bought by Mary Foster, of the prominent Robinson family, who leases it to a multicultural mix of tenants.

1940s: World War II starts; residents are moved out for military exercises.

1965: Real estate appraiser John Hulten issues a report for the state describing the valley’s ideal development as a park, but one that includes campsites, a hotel, restaurant and shops. In the interest of preservation, the state decides to buy it and the Legislature appropriates the first of five $1 million payments.

1969: The state completes the condemnation and acquisition of one of the few relatively pristine ahupuaa—land-to-sea divisions.

1970: The first plan for the park, which would have required evicting residents, is rejected and the idea of a "living park," in which residents provide interpretive services for park visitors, is born.

1975: Lawmakers reject the first of several master plans for the park as too artificial and touristy.

1978: An environmental impact statement proposes hiring a caretaker or konohiki, but his tenure is controversial and brief. An advisory board is also proposed but isn’t formed for six more years.

1979: A group of residents draft a competing "People’s Plan," in which residents do the planning and restoration.

1981: The death of the state planner assigned to Kahana, who is not immediately replaced, leads to more delays.

1985: The Kahana Advisory Committee has a plan for a park to be run by a private nonprofit corportation, which is accepted for review but not adopted by the state Land Board.

1987: The Legislature passes Act 5 to establish the interpretive program for the public and assures leases for 31 residents living in the park, although many details are left out.

1992: The EIS is revised to address the effects of additional homes.

1993: Leases are signed, requiring 25 hours of interpretive services.

1999: The advisory committee urges development of a comprehensive master plan. Among the issues still unresolved is whether children can take over leases.

2001: Some residents rebel against state management and decline to fulfill their service requirement. Eviction notices are issued but not executed.

2004: Families, including the six families living in the front, submit applications for new leases. Efforts through 2008 to win legislative support fails.

2008: The Department of Land and Natural Resources issues evictions to the six families who lacked leases. Lawmakers petition for a stay.

2009: Lawmakers pass a two-year moratorium on evictions; efforts to adopt a master plan resume.

2010: DLNR begins an inquiry into whether residents’ work to alter the park landscape violates the lease.


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