It appears that $1 million from the city will be included in the municipal budget to help two nonprofits purchase an old estate in East Honolulu to preserve a freshwater spring despite objections from seven neighboring homeowners.
City Councilman Trevor Ozawa is inclined to support keeping the money in the next fiscal year budget up for final approval today, a day after the councilman tried to broker a meeting on the property between the neighbors and nonprofit representatives to resolve concerns that neighbors expressed over privacy.
None of the homeowners showed up to the meeting. But Ozawa gained more insight about the Kuliouou property featuring Kanewai Spring, and he better understands the planned use of the site and the value of preserving the cultural and natural resource.
The councilman’s position was relayed by his chief of staff, Kenny Amazaki, and senior adviser, Francis Choe.
Previously, Ozawa recommended in a proposed budget floor draft that the $1 million granted by the city’s Clean Waters and Natural Lands Commission be excised, based on privacy concerns raised by seven homeowners whose properties border Kanewai Fishpond, which is fed by the spring.
Owners of what are mainly large estates as big as an acre ringing the fishpond include Punahou School; Linda and James Yeomans; Kirsten, Michael and Richard Melcher; Paula Ogi and Stacey and Stephen Shimamoto; and the Tran-JMT Family Trust.
The other two owners are an affiliate of a Tokyo-based beauty, spa and diet company called Miss Paris Group and a Nevada company called Kalanianaole Highway LLC managed by Claire and Richard MacDonald.
The homeowners were represented by local attorney, prominent lobbyist and political adviser Bob Toyofuku.
Toyofuku said in a statement that the homeowners didn’t know about the project until seeing a Honolulu Star-Advertiser story about it on April 17.
Hence they didn’t have an opportunity to comment on the plans during public meetings before city and state commissions that approved funding for the purchase. He also said the homeowners weren’t notified about the proposed project being on the agenda of a May 5 Kuliouou-Kalani Iki Neighborhood Board meeting, at which the board adopted a resolution to support the purchase in a 10-1 vote.
“A major objection is that the process has not been fair, balanced or transparent,” Toyofuku said.
Toyofuku also said the homeowners weren’t told when and where Tuesday’s meeting was going to be, so no one attended.
The property with the spring was once owned by convicted Hawaii Ponzi schemer Ronald Rewald but has been more or less unoccupied for more than 20 years after an affiliate of Japanese taxi firm Rikuo Kotsu Co. Ltd. bought the estate in 1989 for $1.8 million. Under Rikuo’s ownership the mansion has deteriorated, and the spring became overcrowded with vegetation to the point where water was choked off from the lagoon.
Maunalua Fishpond Heritage Center obtained permission from Rikuo about six years ago to clean up the property with volunteers from community groups and schools, and has led restoration work every third Saturday of the month for the past five years.
The center worked with another nonprofit, The Trust for Public Land, to buy the property for $2.65 million. The two entities have a purchase contract with Rikuo that expires Aug. 31.
The two nonprofits propose tearing down the mansion and building a new structure containing a classroom, community gathering space, caretaker’s residence and Maunalua Fishpond Heritage office.
Maunalua Fishpond Heritage regards the spring as an endangered site that can be used to teach people about the local ecosystem. The spring is believed to be the last major freshwater spring in Honolulu with a surface connection to the ocean, and it nurtures numerous species of baby native fish, including opae, oopu, aholehole and pipiwai, by providing fresh water to Kanewai Fishpond. The fishpond is connected to the state-owned Paiko Lagoon Wildlife Sanctuary, which leads to Maunalua Bay.
The nonprofits also said the spring helps support the Hawaiian stilt and black-crowned night heron as well as native limpets, shrimp and plants. The property also contains a fishing stone shrine where fishermen would make offerings to Hawaiian gods. The spring’s name, Kanewai, means “water of Kane,” one of the most important gods in Hawaiian mythology.
Last year the Historic Hawai‘i Foundation added the spring to its list of the state’s most endangered places.
Besides the city land preservation commission, the state Legacy Land Conservation Commission decided to chip in $1.3 million for the purchase, and the nonprofits are raising $350,000.
If the purchase deadline isn’t met, the owner of the estate with the spring can pass up the deal with the nonprofits. The nonprofits fear if they miss this chance, a real estate developer could buy the property and destroy the spring.
Amazaki said he understands there is a long line of interested buyers for the property if the nonprofit deal falls through.
Laura Kaakua, native lands project manager for The Trust for Public Land, said the nonprofits should be able to address privacy concerns, and can work with the city to include restrictions on the use of the property to limit the size of groups and the time of operations.
Kaakua said the property features thick vegetation facing the fishpond that almost completely blocks views of other homes, and that the nonprofits are amenable to limiting group events to what has existed over the last five years.
“We’re hopeful we can address all of their concerns,” she said.
Kaakua added that it was disappointing that concerned neighbors weren’t able to meet in person or be involved earlier, but she said she would like to see the Clean Waters and Natural Lands Commission hold a public meeting well before Aug. 31 at which the neighbors can express themselves.
“We want to make sure their comments are heard and addressed by us,” she said.
Kaakua also said that the city, though its Corporation Council, can draft a conservation easement that the city will hold on the property and govern allowed uses.
Chris Cramer, Maunalua Fishpond Heritage founder and president, said if the money is left out of the city budget, purchasing the property and protecting the spring in perpetuity will be highly unlikely.
“This would be a great loss for everyone who values Hawaii,” he said. “Stewardship of this historic spring has been in a manner respectful of the nearby estate owners’ privacy and without a single complaint about this effort. We believe there can continue to be respectful community stewardship of this important site and still allow privacy for the neighbors.”