Many trees in Oahu neighborhoods get decorated with lights for the holiday season, but one in a city park adorned by a resident in honor of his deceased son is creating community discord.
Mike Miske, a local businessman and Portlock resident, hung 10,700 lights on an ironwood tree in Joe Lukela Beach Park fronting Maunalua Bay in Hawaii Kai about this time last year without permission, and city officials told him to take them down.
This year Miske obtained a unique city permit and recently lit up the tree, which is celebrated by some and viewed by others as a bad precedent.
The conflict was on display at a Tuesday night Hawaii Kai Neighborhood Board meeting where passionate support for the illuminated tree ran up against concerns that city trees islandwide will turn into memorials.
“If we all do this, all of our parks and beaches will become memorials, cemeteries, graveyards,” said Winston Welch, executive director of the Outdoor Circle, an organization dedicated to preserving Hawaii’s natural beauty.
Welch expressed condolences for Miske’s son, but added: “We have to realize this is public land, and we have to respect that it is public land. We have appropriate places for remembering people.”
Several East Honolulu residents said the light display is appropriate and is appreciated by many people who have scattered remains of family members in Maunalua Bay.
“It’s just crazy that we are actually arguing about this,” said Michael Connell, a near-lifelong Portlock resident. “The fact is the majority of the public love that tree. I don’t hear anybody going, ‘That tree is horrible, look at that.’ ”
Several neighborhood board members stressed that they weren’t judging the aesthetics and purpose of the display or the intentions and sincerity of Miske, who was at the meeting but didn’t speak. Board members said there should have been a public forum, before authorizing the display, to discuss whether the tree in the park, or trees in other city parks or public places, should be used for memorial displays.
“It’s about the process,” said board Chairwoman Natalie Iwasa.
Elizabeth Reilly, board co-chairwoman, added: “Are we moving in a direction to using our (public) trees to memorialize? It should be a larger conversation.”
Miske’s endeavor did enter a larger public forum — the Honolulu City Council — but only briefly and ultimately was authorized by a “temporary tree permit” from the City Department of Parks and Recreation.
Councilman Trevor Ozawa, who represents Hawaii Kai, said Miske came to him earlier this year seeking help after being told last year that he couldn’t light up the park tree. Ozawa crafted Bill 40, which was introduced March 30 and proposed establishing a program for citizens to adopt city trees.
Ozawa said he treated Miske as any other constituent.
Miske is the owner of several companies including Kamaaina Termite and Pest Control, solar power firm Kamaaina Energy and Kamaaina Plumbing and Renovation. Miske’s son, Caleb-Jordan Keanu Miske-Lee, died in March 2016 from injuries in a November 2015 car crash in Kaneohe, and his ashes were spread in Maunalua Bay.
At a May 2 Council meeting on Bill 40, Miske said he put the lights up last year for his son “so he would have a Christmas tree.” Miske added that the lit tree was also for other people’s loved ones resting in the bay.
“It’s beautiful, you know, it really is,” he told Council members. “It’s not causing nobody harm. In fact, it’s only good.”
City parks Director Michele Nekota raised concerns about an adopt-a-tree program, saying decorations could interfere with tree maintenance or cause damage. Nekota also said her staff couldn’t administer such a program given that there are more than 200,000 trees on city property.
Stan Oka, the city’s urban forestry administrator, told the Council that the city’s historical policy prohibits people from attaching things to trees on city streets and in parks. Councilman Ernie Martin said he wanted to see the one tree lit up and encouraged parks officials to work it out.
Since May, no further action was taken on the bill, but parks officials agreed to allow the lights. On Sept. 29, Nekota submitted a resolution to the Council for accepting a gift from Makana Pacific Development, led by Miske, in the form of lights and a photovoltaic system with batteries and a trellis valued at $58,000.
Nekota’s request said the display would be aesthetically pleasing and add security lighting. Hawaii Kai neighborhood board leaders said they had been tracking Bill 40, but felt the gift resolution left them out of the loop because it didn’t state that the lighting system was for Joe Lukela Beach Park.
In October, Miske amended his gift declaration to instead install an electrical line from a distant park bathroom to power the lights, and the Council voted unanimously Nov. 1 to accept that gift valued at $40,000.
At Tuesday’s neighborhood board meeting, Tim Houghton, deputy director of the city Department of Environmental Services, said a temporary tree permit was issued for the lights for Nov. 20 to Jan. 2. He also said the gift is being revised again to return to a PV panel system. That revision would need Council approval, but Miske recently began powering the lights with a portable generator.
Nekota said in a statement that her department views the setup as a “pilot program” for lighting the tree during the holidays. Such a tree permit has not been given before, according to a spokesman for the department.
Neighborhood board member Reilly expressed frustration that the lights went up before many community members knew about the arrangement, how long it would last or even which tree in what park it was for.
Lasha-Lynn Salbosa, a board member, questioned whether the city was accepting a gift to circumvent going through a rule process. She also questioned what the city would do if others requested to make gifts to light up trees. “I think this is a dangerous precedent to set,” Salbosa said.
Robert Clark, another board member, said he expects others will propose similar donations to honor their loved ones. “If we allow one person to do it today there will be somebody else coming along tomorrow … . In the end we’ll have a proliferation of these things.”
Harry Lopes told the board he wants the tree lights on for Jan. 16 in honor of his son who died on that day in 2014. “I got a son in the bay,” he said. “I’m not going to get a permit. That light right now … brings families together.”
At the end of the meeting, board member Greg Knudsen said he didn’t favor asking that the lights be taken down but that there should be more public input the next time around. The board took no action for or against the tree lighting.