Tuesday, April 15, 2003

GOP decries Kokee’s ‘sweetheart deal’

Many prominent local families
would benefit from the legislation

By Bruce Dunford
Associated Press

Republican leaders in the House and Senate are questioning why some of Hawaii's most prominent and wealthy kamaaina families are in line for a "sweetheart deal" on their leased state lots in Kauai's picturesque and idyllic Kokee State Park under a bill before the Legislature.

The original House bill directed the Department of Land & Natural Resources to issue new long-term leases on state lands now occupied by the Aloha Beach Resort Kauai with a special provision giving the hotel compensation for its improvements should it be outbid for the new leases.

Art According to the bill, the state would benefit economically if the financially troubled company continues its operations and gets financing for substantial improvements, "forestalling the likely immediate negative impacts such as reduced employment, loss of payroll, unemployment expenditures and loss of state and county tax revenues that will result if the lessee's operations fail."

Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo) said he finds that proposal laudable.

What concerns him is the language added when the bill moved through the House Finance Committee.

In defining the land parcels and leases to be included in special consideration, the committee added that it also would apply to leases "in Kokee, Kauai, Hawaii in general."

Adding those few words would direct the DLNR to give the same special consideration in providing long-term leases or compensation for improvements to 111 families and organizations that hold leases on cabin lots in Kokee State Park, including one held in part by Rep. Bertha Kawakami (D, Niihau-Poipu-Kokee), vice chairwoman of the Finance Committee.

The list of leases reads like a who's who of Hawaii's kamaaina families: Sheehan, Wilcox, Baldwin, Carswell and Pratt. There are also a number of organizations, churches and other notables, including newspaper reporters, former lawmakers and businesses.

"The Legislature should not interfere with these leases unless there's an overwhelming, compelling public interest," Hemmings said. "In this particular instance, it appears that there's a sweetheart deal.

"I think Rep. Kawakami is in a difficult position, being one of the beneficiaries of this particular request and being one of the authors of this (bill)."

House Minority Leader Galen Fox (R, Waikiki-Ala Moana) called it "obviously special-interest legislation.

The Lingle administration has opposed the measure "on a number of fronts" as it moved through the Legislature, said Russell Pang, spokesman for the Governor's Office.

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As for the Kauai Beach Resort, the bill is unnecessary because the DLNR already has approved renewal of that lease, he said.

As for the Kokee leases, the bill would interfere with a master plan being prepared for Kokee, "so we don't think it's the right thing to do," he said.

Sen. Sam Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai) said he is concerned about the "cloak and dagger" handling of the bill that he said "sets a bad precedent in terms of trying to manipulate leases for one group of people as opposed to others."

Kawakami said she was not present when the Finance Committee amended the original bill, and while her name is on the lease, "I don't have anything to do with that. My sister-in-law pays for it, takes care of it, goes to the meetings."

Kawakami said the lease first was obtained by her husband, the late House Speaker Richard Kawakami, who died in 1987.

She said she is sympathetic to the Kokee lessees who have built cabins in Kokee's forest and made improvements on the lots but face having their lots put out for auction to the highest bidder every 10 years.

"The local people have no chance," she said. "The mainland people who have money come in and bid high, so you know you're not going to get it."

Those who lose their lease are stuck with either tearing down their house and hauling it away or leaving it for the new lessee to use, she said. "And the people who have to tear it down, they cry about it."

Rep. Colleen Meyer (R, Laie-Kahaluu) said she voted against the bill in the Finance Committee because of the way it was advanced, but added she is sympathetic to the Kokee cabin owners and feels something should be done to protect their investments when the lease expires.

"Now you have to compete with everybody even though you put all this money into this cute little cottage and whatever, and you're out," she said. "Yet the state says, 'Hey, we have the responsibility to get the most that we can for these public lands.'"

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