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Star-Bulletin Features

Monday, November 8, 1999

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Richard Asato, a volunteer at Waimalu Grace
Brethren church, talks about its pending relocation

Underneath it all

It's the end of the road for
part of a Waimalu community
about to be displaced for
freeway expansion

By Cynthia Oi


ONE side of Salvador Lagronio's home in Waimalu nudges up against a rocky hill sprayed with pink bougainvillea. On the other side of the tidy gray house, massive concrete pillars tower overhead, obscuring all but a small patch of blue sky.

The H-1 has shaded the home for the 27 years Lagronio and his family have lived there. They have become accustomed to the constant thrum of tires, the grumbling of engines and the grit that filters down from the freeway to their yard.

Although the neighborhood may not be one of Oahu's best, Lagronio, who lives there with his wife, Josephine, son and granddaughter, likes it.

But if a state plan to widen the H-1 goes ahead, nine houses along with a church and preschool will be demolished.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
The parsonage that will be removed.

Because of increasing traffic, the project will add a sixth westbound lane to the freeway from Kaonohi Street to the Waiau Interchange, a length of less than a mile, according to the state Department of Transportation. Each of the other five lanes will be widened by a foot, making them 12 feet wide.

Plans also call for a 10-foot median shoulder and a 12-foot right shoulder. Construction is scheduled to begin in the fall 2002 and be completed in spring 2004. The homes, church and preschool are along Pono and Ponohale streets and Ponohana Loop.

Federal money will pay for the work and federal law requires that the people forced to move be either compensated or found a home of comparable value and size, said Michael Amuro, head of the DOT's property management section.

"They will probably end up in a better area than right now," Amuro said.

Lagronio, a Hickam field motor pool retiree, is lucky. At first, his Ponohana Place home was among those to be demolished. Now, the state is working to leave it where it is and provide a new access to the lot from Moanalua Road. Mrs. Lagronio said plans aren't yet final, but she is hopeful.

Donald Chang will definitely have to move. He and his wife Frances, 67, raised three children in the five-bedroom house they've lived in for 41 years. One daughter still lives with them.

"We were one of the original people here," he said.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Days under the freeway are numbered for, from left,
preschool director Priscilla Arakawa, Richard Asato
and preschool assistant director Brenda Dickinson.

Chang, 65, remembers when the freeway was first built in the early '60s. "We lost lots of neighbors way back then," he said.

"We thought we were fortunate at that time. They missed our house, but now they've reached us," he said.

"But I guess this is part of progress. We're in the way of the increasing move of the population. It goes along with the new times," the retired Honolulu fire chief said.

While the Changs, the Lagronios and other homeowners like them will get another house or money to buy one, the Waimalu Grace Brethren Church is in a different situation.

The church and its preschool sit right under the freeway on state-owned land. Waimalu Grace Brethren is in its 16th year of a 55-year lease agreement with the state, paying between $9,000 and $10,000 a year.

But church officials were informed last year that they'll have to leave. And because they lease the land, the congregation will get little compensation for the buildings, the parking lot and other improvements they've made.

"The state will pay replacement costs for construction material -- cement, wood, concrete -- that kind of stuff. But it doesn't take into account the labor and, of course, the land," said Nick Dzon, a church deacon who works as a project manager.

Wayne H. Aoki, chair of the children's center board and a church elder, said that at first, church officials thought they would just have to move while the freeway was being fixed, and would be able to return when the project was done

But they were told that for safety reasons, the church would have to leave the site permanently.

"We thought they just needed access to build," Aoki said. "But they said, no, no, no, you're condemned. Then they said, 'Oh, you guys not really condemned. It's a safety issue. Things are going to fall off.' But we're directly under the freeway. Unless the whole thing comes down, what's going to fall?

"They said they wanted to protect the church, that they don't feel it's an appropriate place, being under the freeway. If they thought that, why did they lease it to us in the first place?"

Dzon was baffled about why the state sold the church two small parcels of land that lie between the church buildings and the two parsonages Waimalu Grace Brethren owns. The land cost $18,000.

"Within 6 to 8 months of us completing the purchase, they told us, oh, we have to take those back," Dzon said.

"The state probably could have saved a lot of time and money not selling us those parcels in the first place. Now they have to pay the costs of buying it back -- appraisal fees, legal work -- all of that."

Although the church has been at the site for only 16 years, it has been holding services in other Waimalu locations and providing for the people in the area for more than 30 years, Aoki said.

"So when the state came in and said, your church is small, only 200 people, they were not seeing all that we do," he said.

Besides the popular preschool, which has a wait list of 70 children for 55 openings, the church opens its basketball and volleyball courts to the community.

On one recent evening, there were about 150 youngsters attending the church's youth club sports night, said associate pastor Ray Dennis.

"We run like a grand prix for model cars and 200 to 300 kids will come islandwide to race," Aoki said. "It's a kids' activity center."

"We have a community," he said. "They can do environmental assessments -- assess this and that -- but how do you assess the impact on a community. The assets of aloha and ohana are in the community."

The church will receive compensation for the two parsonages, one of which Rev. Dennis and his wife Helen occupy.

Dennis helped build the church under the freeway, retired to Idaho, then came back to work in the islands in September.

The couple has been cleaning and fixing up the house even though they know they may be there only for, at most, a couple of years.

"The move and uncertainty is hard on the people, hard on our congregation," Dennis said.

He is not sure where a new church will be located, but he hopes it will be nearby.

"Our name is Waimalu Grace Brethren Church. That reflects our community," he said.

Terry Tabarejo has been part of that community all 38 years of his life.

"I was born and raised over here," he said, in the same four-bedroom house he now shares with his mother, wife and three children.

About moving to a new neighborhood, Tabarejo said, "We have no choice in this matter. We have no money to hire lawyers like that, to fight this thing. It's coming, we can't stop it. Going be sad."

About the state's promise to find him another house, he said, "People talk. When I see the action, then maybe I'll be satisfied, but we have to see it first.

"Just because they got to make something, a bigger freeway, they have to move people."

Others whose homes will be condemned were reluctant to talk about the situation. One elderly woman who has lived in her home for more than 30 years said she did not want to do anything that might affect negotiations with the state. "I better not say anything now," she said.

Chang is looking "on the good side of things. It makes life easier," he said.

He hopes the state will be able to find a home that he and his wife will like. "According to what they're saying, they will give us a replacement as close to what we have now and no less.

"As far as what they said, we don't have to put out any money. But talk to me later about that," he said with a laugh.

He told the state that he'd like a house either in Waimalu or closer to town. The reason is ironic, he said. "I don't want to go further out due to the traffic problems we having out here."

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