Public lands ballot measure gains favor
A Big Island initiative would divert 2 percent of all property taxes to an acquisition fund
KAILUA-KONA, Hawaii » A grass-roots group is optimistic voters will approve a measure next month to buy up Big Island land for public use.
The initiative diverts 2 percent of the county's property taxes each year into a public access, open space and natural resources preservation fund.
Although more than 70 percent of Big Island voters polled in 2004 liked the idea, the drive has hit several snags on its way to the ballot.
Advocates were shot down at the Hawaii County Council level, thousands of signatures were struck off a petition due to a technicality and, finally, a misunderstanding led to muddled wording on the ballot question.
Despite its bumpy beginnings, the "2 Percent Solution" initiative will be on the Nov. 7 ballot.
"It is an important issue because so many of the treasured lands that make this such a special place are being lost and if we don't get the funds now, they'll be lost forever," said Debbie Hecht, a member of the Save Our Land Citizen's Committee. "It's taken hundreds of volunteers, but we are optimistic."
The group wants the Big Island to follow in the footsteps of Maui and Kauai counties, which amended their charters in 2002 to dedicate regular funding to preserve natural areas and cultural sites.
Oahu also will vote on a similar measure this year, Hecht said.
The Trust for Public Land group last year asked the County Council to set aside 2 percent of property taxes -- more than $2.6 million -- each year to purchase environmentally and culturally important lands.
The council instead earmarked $250,000 a year for the fund and established a commission to draw up a list of lands to preserve.
That commission already has identified more than a dozen priority properties including: Keei Beach, just south of Kealakekua Bay; Kawa Bay in Kau; the Waipio Valley overlook; Pohue Bay, once proposed for a "Riviera" resort; Maulua Gulch on the Hamakua Coast; and parcels along the Kohala Coast.
Advocates were discouraged by the council's action, but not defeated.
They regrouped as the Save Our Land Citizen's Committee and set about gathering the 10,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.
Signatures without full addresses were dropped from the petition, leaving it about 800 names short.
The committee appealed to the County Council, which voted to put the issue before the voters on the General Election ballot.
The initiative's wording, however, failed to specify which lands will be purchased with the special fund. The omission was not discovered until it was too late to make a change.
If voters approve the measure, the council then is expected to amend the County Code to specify which lands to purchase for recreation, protection or preservation, including watersheds, forests, agricultural lands and culturally significant sites.
"We urge everyone to vote for the 2 percent fund on the ballot," Hecht said. "We are assured by council members ... that the purpose clause will be replaced."
A majority of council members publicly have committed to making the amendment reflect the intention of the measure.
But Kona Councilwoman Virginia Isbell said while she supports the concept, she cannot support the initiative as it is written. She said she believes it is taxation without representation and is unconstitutional.
Mayor Harry Kim initially supported the program but is concerned a fixed percentage would tie up county funds permanently.
Kim apologized to Hecht and the committee over the ballot wording.
"I was so disappointed in us as government," Kim wrote. "I am very sorry that we have been unable to resolve this so that the clear intent of the committee can be reflected in the vote on the initiative measure," Kim wrote. "I promise that if the 2 percent initiative passes, we will do all we can to make sure the County Council acts quickly."