Supporters and opponents of a controversial Kaneohe cemetery expansion plan sounded off in about equal numbers Wednesday to start a quasi-judicial state hearing over whether forested conservation land can be developed with 30,000 new burial sites for Hawaiian Memorial Park.
Close to 130 people attended first-day proceedings of the state Land Use Commission to consider — for the second time in two decades — reclassifying hillside land owned by the cemetery from conservation to urban use.
About 40 people addressed commissioners to share opposing views, sometimes with emotional stories.
Supportive testimony came largely from people with relatives buried at Hawaiian Memorial, as well as from people with business or labor ties to the cemetery.
Others who endorsed the estimated $29 million plan included some folks with well-known names in Hawaii politics, including former Gov. Neil Abercrombie; Millanie Akaka, daughter of late U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka; and Naomi Takai, mother of late U.S. Rep. K. Mark Takai.
Opponents largely were residents who live in the Pikoiloa subdivision abutting the 28-acre expansion site, but also included several area public school students who expressed concerns about inviting other commercial plans on conservation land, fears of increased runoff into Kaneohe Bay and a contention that embalming fluids contaminate the land.
Wednesday was the first of what is expected to be a multiple-day hearing dominated by representatives of an affiliate of Texas-based Service Corp. International, which owns the cemetery, the city Department of Planning and Permitting, the state Office of Planning, and community group Hui o Pikoiloa.
These parties can present and cross-examine expert witnesses on subjects including land-use regulations, the burial industry, geology and more.
The more emotional testimony, however, came from members of the public, many of whom wore shirts or stickers conveying opposing views of the plan during Wednesday’s meeting, held in a Koolau Golf Course ballroom with views outside of Hawaiian Memorial Park.
Lifelong Kaneohe resident Mel Kalahiki Jr. told LUC members that it’s important for him to be buried at Hawaiian Memorial near relatives.
“My family’s there,” he said. “That’s where I belong.”
Kalahiki added that his children also ask him if they will have the same opportunity. “I couldn’t answer that,” he told commissioners. “You guys make the decision to answer for us.”
Mercy Soriano conveyed a similar concern extending to her children’s children.
“They have to have that choice of final disposition,” she said. “Give that generation that chance. This is our religious right.”
Gretchen Gould presented an opposing view on this issue, and suggested that expanding Hawaiian Memorial, which opened in 1958 on
6 acres and today has 79,000 plots on 80 acres, for every subsequent generation might spell no end to the cemetery’s size.
“This for-profit mainland company knew this was conservation land when they purchased it, and they knew what conservation means,” she said.
Francis Kau, who has family living near the expansion site, urged commissioners to keep the land in conservation forever.
“This piece of land is for the living,” he said.
Puanani Akaka, whose
parents have a home near the conservation site, suggested that Service Corp., which is the the largest funeral and cemetery service business operator in the nation, could find other ways to inter more remains within the cemetery’s existing boundaries.
“I have to question their notion that they need more space,” she said.
Of the 79,000 plots at Hawaiian Memorial, all but about 4,500, or about 6%, have been sold. However, only 41,000 are occupied.
Service Corp. has said its expansion plan is necessary to satisfy demand for an aging population, and that only about 20,000 plots are available between Oahu’s seven cemeteries.
The company previously sought to expand Hawaiian Memorial in 2007 with a broader plan that included a 20-home subdivision and four mausoleums.
The subdivision was nixed, but opposition still came from nearby residents, the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board, Kaneohe Outdoor Circle and Life of the Land.
Though the state Office of Planning supported urbanizing some of the hillside, LUC members unanimously voted the plan down in 2009 in part because urbanizing the site wasn’t consistent with county urban-growth boundary guidelines.
In response, Service Corp. obtained an urban growth boundary amendment from the City Council in 2017.
Features in the current plan exclude mausoleums, would restore an ancient
Native Hawaiian heiau and would establish an easement to be held by a nonprofit land trust protecting
130 acres of adjacent land from future development
In part because of these
elements, some Native
including the Koolau Foundation, support the project.
The plan also calls for a 150-foot buffer of open space next to homes and a 2,000-foot buffer from the Pohai Nani senior living community.
Still, some elements of the plan worry neighbors. These include 10- to 75-foot cuts into the hillside, retaining walls as tall as 25 feet, stormwater retention basins and rockfall prevention fencing. There is also concern for a native damselfly population on the site.
Service Corp. said its engineering and cultural plans sufficiently address all the issues.
Abercrombie told commissioners this plan is the best alternative because of the conservation easement.
“That’s what’s so attractive,” he said. Previously,
Abercrombie has described Hawaiian Memorial as a
good neighbor for donating 33 acres to the state in 1989 for the adjacent State Veterans Cemetery.
Naomi Takai said she and her husband bought a plot
at Hawaiian Memorial about 50 years ago, and called the cemetery an important part of the community for over
Millanie Akaka said her father supported the cemetery when he was alive, and she supports the expansion.
“The project is a gift to us,” she said.
Still, others weren’t convinced during Wednesday’s nearly 7-hour hearing.
“I am concerned about the expansion of this graveyard, and I oppose it,” said Laura Paul, a fourth-generation resident of the neighborhood who said she has plots at Hawaiian Memorial and won’t use them.
The LUC tentatively plans to resume the hearing in April.