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Fires, vandalism plague former base

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    There have been 20 brush and rubbish fires this month. Dozens of power poles have been felled by metal scavengers. Residents report manhole covers being taken. One observer says the word is out that security is lax and the area is “wide open.”
    John Bond, a historian and preservationist from Ewa Beach, estimates thieves looking for scrap wire have cut down at least 50 utility poles on the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station.
    Graffiti is scrawled on an abandoned house and dust screen on Hornet Avenue on the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station. There have been 20 brush and rubbish fires this month.

Sections of the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station are returning to the "wild, wild West" vandalism and lawless days that followed the base closing in 1999, a local historian and preservationist charges.

Some residents and officials agree with that assessment by Ewa Beach’s John Bond, while others do not, as the old 3,700-acre military base continues to occupy an awkward place between the ongoing departure of the Navy and redevelopment somewhere down the road.

A case in point: State Sen. Mike Gabbard said he rents the former base commander’s home from developer Hunt Cos., which is a lessee and owner of 538 acres of former Navy land where a spate of fires and vandalism has occurred.

The single-story, four-bedroom, two-bath house on Franklin Avenue with a large white anchor and chain out front has a large, well-kept yard dotted with flowering plumeria and big shade trees.

But across the street is a house with big holes in the walls in a yard of knee-high dry weeds flanked by a huge dead tree.

More than a dozen other unoccupied former officer residences stand in similar disrepair nearby, some with boarded-up windows and "Keep Out" signs.

Bond figures at least 50 utility poles have been chopped down by thieves stripping wiring for scrap in the past year.

Residents complain that sewer manhole covers are disappearing, and any metal that is not nailed down — and some that is — is being taken for its recycling value.

Honolulu Fire Department spokes­man Capt. Terry Seelig said there have been 20 calls for rubbish or brush fires in the Kalaeloa area this month, with three such fires reported on former base property on Monday alone.

The majority appear to have been intentionally set, Seelig said.

"We started noticing them (the fires) around midsummer, August, fires popping up in that area," Seelig said.

Four to six fires were reported in August, and eight to 10 in September.

The fires have been small, burning a few dozen square feet to more than an acre at a time.

Some of those fires, including two started Monday, are near Hunt Cos.-controlled areas.

"Since the base was decommissioned, there has been, at different times, obvious fire-setting activity," Seelig said.

Bond, an authority on the old base, points to the discontinuation of Navy security patrols in October 2012 as the precursor to the latest round of vandalism.

The security patrols were not continuous, but "on enough basis to show, you might say, the flag of the U.S. government. So it sort of kept some people at bay out there."

"Once the word got out that the Navy government people in white trucks were no longer patrolling, that just sent a huge signal to everybody that ‘Hey, this is wide open now,’" Bond said.

The Navy said it still controls about 430 acres at the former base. Another 213 acres remain in control of the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Program Management Office but are planned to be transferred to the Hawaii Community Development Authority.

Asked about Bond’s allegation of security cutbacks, Navy Region Hawaii said in an email statement, "While we do not comment specifically on security procedures, it is important to note that Navy resources, to include security patrols, are paid with congressionally appropriated funds specifically to provide service to Navy and Department of Defense activities."

As a member of the Kalaeloa Public Safety Group, the Navy said it works with its partners to "assist when appropriate, (but) we are not resourced to patrol non-(Defense Department) property."

As such, Navy patrols at Kalaeloa "are specifically in support of the Navy and Department of Defense facilities that are still present there."

Bond said he called Navy police when the security cutback first became apparent, "and they said, ‘Yeah, we think it’s a real bad idea. We tried to convince (Navy higher-ups) this shouldn’t happen. There’s going to be a lot of problems.’"

Hunt Cos., the landlord for some interim businesses and residential units at the former Navy base, now called Kalaeloa, said in addition to relying on the Hono­lulu Police Department, it has a security contract for patrols with the company Securitas.

Steve Colón, president of development for Hunt’s Hawaii Region, said in an email that the security patrols "are frequent enough and thorough, though we continue to monitor and make adjustments as needed."

In the past four years since acquiring the property, "Hunt has spent several million dollars to restore some life to the Kalaeloa area," Colón said.

"What was a completely dilapidated, neglected, and unkempt area of land and buildings is now in the middle of an extensive renovation and planning effort for the creation of a vibrant community," he said. "We have essentially ‘turned the lights back on’ by adding 30 local businesses as tenants in formerly abandoned and deteriorating buildings."

By the year 2035, Hunt’s plan for Kalaeloa is projected to create more than 7,000 direct and indirect jobs, more than 1,000 construction jobs and 4,000 houses.

Although the fires are increasing, Police Department spokes­woman Teresa Bell said, "We haven’t seen a spike in crime that we’ve tracked (at Kalaeloa). It hasn’t been reported to us."

She said the department would check with the Navy to see whether it cut back patrols.

"If the Navy pulls out, we’re going to have to beef up our patrols," she said.

Evelyn Souza, chairwoman of the Maka­kilo/Kapo­lei/Hono­kai Hale Neighborhood Board, said there’s "absolutely" not enough law enforcement presence on the old base. "That’s without question," she said.

Gabbard, who said he pays "market value" rent for his home and has lived in the former commander’s quarters and another residence on base since 2004, has not seen a growing vandalism trend.

"Not really," Gabbard said. "I think it’s actually better than it was in the old days when we first moved in."

Bond says that through the years, "many very fine former Navy buildings — homes, barracks, clubs, etc. — were smashed, looted and graffitied in every way possible."

That deterioration has continued in the historic officer homes neighborhood where Gabbard is a resident, with holes cut in some roofs for firefighter training — allowing rain to enter, Bond said.

Seelig said his understanding is that a Florida-based company was allowed to put on a firefighting training workshop using some of the homes. The Hono­lulu Fire Department did not participate, he said.

Gabbard said many of the officer homes were already dilapidated and termite-ridden years ago.

Hunt’s Colón said, "After we acquired the property from the Navy we saved all the homes that were determined to be salvageable. Then, as now, we felt the homes were in such poor condition that they were unsafe and beyond salvage."

Bond, meanwhile, sees waste in the destruction of power lines, homes and buildings.

"It’s a waste of millions of dollars in our taxpayer money," Bond said. "I mean, all this damage being done is actually federal property."

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