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Proposal to Extend Public Land Leases Now Before Gov. Ige

Hamakua Coast Big Island
Ku'uwehi Hiraishi
The state Board of Land and Natural Resources oversees 1.3 million acres of land statewide, a majority of which generates millions of dollars a year to support public trust purposes under the Admissions Act.

Governor David Ige is considering a measure passed by Hawai?i lawmakers that would allow the state to extend leases of public lands for up to 40 years if tenants agree to make significant improvements to the property. Supporters of House Bill 499 say it will attract long-term investments in public lands. Critics argue it could open the door to public lands being held in private hands for more than 100 years.

House Bill 499 authorizes the state Board of Land and Natural Resources to directly negotiate lease extensions with tenants of public lands. This includes leases for commercial, government, industrial, resort, or mixed-use purposes. Big Island Senator Lorraine Inouye says the bill will incentivize investment and long-term maintenance of Hawai?i’s public lands.

“The burden of improving lease properties lies on the lessees, many of whom are willing to make the investment in exchange for lease extensions,” says Sen. Inouye.

Public land leases currently have a maximum term of 65 years, with some tenants approaching the end of their leases. Under HB 499, these tenants will be eligible for an extension if they commit to investing at least 30 percent of the property’s fair market value into renovations or developments to the property.

Daniel Kea, General Manager of Hilo’s Prince K?hi? Plaza, which would be eligible for an extension under the bill, says the 30 percent threshold for investment in improvements is a substantial amount. And that’s just to apply, he says. The extension is not guaranteed.

BLNR oversees 1.3 million acres of land statewide, a majority of which generates millions of dollars a year to support five public trust purposes, including schools, agricultural development, capitol improvements, parks, and the betterment of the condition of Native Hawaiians.

North Shore Senator Gil Riviere worries this bill will prevent the state from maximizing revenues on these lands.

“I think the state should look after its interest and consider a reopening of the lease to allow any other potential tenants to compete,” says Sen. Riviere, “That would give us better value for our property.”

Critics of the bill fear the extension would allow public lands to be held privately for more than 100 years. Senator Inouye argues there’s a greater public benefit.

“This is not a bill to deny benefits to beneficiary,” says Sen. Inouye, “It’s a bill about jobs, economic stability, opportunity, sustainability, vitality, and community improvement.”

HB 499 passed both chambers despite overwhelming opposition from environmental and Native Hawaiian groups concerned about the lack of oversight and public input.

Healani Sonoda-Pale says having a say is particularly critical for Native Hawaiians who hold unrelinquished claims to a majority of public lands known as ceded lands. These are Hawaiian Kingdom crown and government lands stolen after the 1893 overthrow. Sonoda-Pale, public affairs officer for Ka L?hui Hawai?i Political Action Committee, helped organize opposition to HB 499.

“We did get a significant number of 'No' votes on that (bill), and that was heartening in that it meant that public pressure and basically three or four months of emails and testimony had some effect,” says Sonoda-Pale, “But the education needs to continue.”

HB 499 now goes to Governor David Ige for approval or veto – and that’s where the opposition will now focus its efforts. Gov. Ige has until June 21 to announce which bills he intends to veto.

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