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Battle over permits doubles cost of center for Molokai veterans

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Molokai veterans are close to getting the green light to build a long-anticipated Kaunakakai veterans center, but the delay in getting the necessary permits has doubled the cost of building the structure meant to help more than 600 veterans on the island.

Larry Helm, commander of the nonprofit Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans, said yesterday that when he began the process nearly five years ago, the group had more than $250,000 to build the $112,000 veterans center on Wharf Road.

However, Helm said new estimates to build the same facility run between $400,000 and $500,000.

"We had commitments then from architects, engineers, contractors and others to donate their labor or their help to keep costs down," Helm said.

But many of the veterans have moved. Some have died waiting, said Helm, whose group has a membership of 359 veterans of the estimated 600 who live on Molokai and includes members of the World War II 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

"We may have to redo everything," he said.

"It was like being in the war again," said Helm, a 25th Infantry Division Vietnam War veteran. "We did what the county (Maui) requested, and then we were ambushed with new requirements."

He said countless other organizations and groups sought and obtained similar permits from Maui County without any problems over the past five years. The Molokai veterans group estimated it has spent nearly $30,000 on materials, studies and other services in its battle with Maui County planning and other permitting agencies.

Since 2005, when the organization was given a 16,182-square-foot parcel by Molokai Ranch, the group has been planning to build a 1,890-square-foot veterans center that would have a small kitchen, museum, space for counselors and adjoining 1,100-square-foot lanai. The money to design and build the center comes from a $250,000 grant from the 2007 Legislature.

However, in 2007 the veterans lost a battle with the Maui County Department of Water Supply, which rejected part of its building permit because it believed an existing 4-inch waterline did not provide adequate flow needed for firefighting. The Molokai veterans appealed the decision, pointing out that county fire officials said the site has adequate water pressure.

Frustrated with the repeated delays, the veterans filed a federal lawsuit in September charging that former Maui Mayor Charmaine Tavares, in a phone call to Helm in June 2010, not only threatened to withhold the building permit unless he apologized for filing appeals, but also warned him not to lead a protest in Kahului.

On Thursday, federal Judge Leslie Kobayashi dismissed a portion of that lawsuit pertaining to the Maui Water Department, saying that matter needs to be decided by the county. Jane Lovell, Maui County deputy corporation counsel, and Susan Halevi, attorney representing the Molokai veterans, declined to discuss the lawsuit.

Lovell pointed out that earlier this month the Maui County Council passed a law, which was approved by Mayor Alan Arakawa on April 5, that gives the Maui Fire Department final say in water issues dealing with fire prevention when it comes to building permits.

Fire officials have said in the past that the department would approve the 4-inch waterline as being adequate for firefighting.

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