Deal allows charter
school to stay

Big Isle officials say Waters of Life
must get a county use permit

HILO >> A controversial Big Island charter school can stay on a farm south of Hilo but must obtain a county "use permit," county officials decided yesterday.

The decision is a reversal of a previous county position that Wai Ola Waters of Life Public Charter School did not need the permit.

The county Planning Commission may deny the permit, forcing the school to move anyway. The school already has moved four times in four years.

The tentative deal allowing the school to stay was worked out yesterday between the Hawaii County Council and members of Mayor Harry Kim's administration.

Although the school's farm near Kurtistown is 28 acres, its 9,000-square-foot main building is on Ala Loop, a quiet, one-lane side road with some two dozen homes nearby.

Some residents have objected to the school, citing concerns about noise and traffic.

County lawyer Lincoln Ashida predicted the county will eventually have to take the school and the Ala Loop Community Association to court for a judge's ruling.

This would mean more expenses for the school, which is already well more than $100,000 in debt because of the state's past failure to pay money it owed the school.

The problem regarding the lack of a use permit began in 2001, county Planning Director Chris Yuen told the Council.

The school was at two different locations then but was already under criticism from neighbors, Yuen said.

The law was plain about one site, on urban land, but was vague about the other site, on agricultural land.

An oral opinion from the state attorney general and a "consultation" with Ashida's office indicated that a state law benefiting charter schools made a use permit on agricultural land unnecessary, Yuen said.

With that 2001 opinion in hand, the school purchased the Ala Loop farm this summer but did not apply for the permit. Neighbors complained they had no warning the school was coming, notification they would have had under the process of obtaining a permit.

Council Chairman Jimmy Arakaki recast the controversy as a "home rule" issue and expressed displeasure at the state intruding in county affairs.

The use permit is a county function, but Yuen based his 2001 opinion that a permit was unnecessary on a state law.

Yesterday, Ashida and Yuen did an about-face. Ashida said the state law does not override the need for a county permit. Yuen promised to abide by the new opinion.

But the school relied on Yuen's 2001 opinion for two years. Ashida said it would be "extremely unfair" to block the new school site now.

Council members asked how long a court will take to clarify this issue. "Your guess is as good as mine," Ashida answered.


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