Three-decade-old ceded lands dispute resolved

By Treena Shapiro
Honolulu, Hawaii (AP) April 2012

A historic bill signing at Washington Place settles a nearly three-decades-old ceded lands dispute between the state and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The settlement signed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie resolves all OHA’s claims to former crown land revenue from 1987 to the end of June. Under the agreement, OHA receives 30 acres of waterfront property in Kakaako Makai worth $200 million. In exchange, the agency waives longstanding claims over its share of proceeds from duty free shops and lands used for state hospitals and public housing projects.

“A debt was paid to our people. You can put that in your heart and carry that on your shoulder,” OHA Chairwoman Collette Machado told state officials at the ceremony. U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka was in attendance, along with OHA trustees, Hawaiian Homes commissioners, state lawmakers and Hawaiian civic group members.

In 2008, a similar $200 million real estate transfer was proposed, but failed to pass the state Legislature. The issue has also been brought before the state supreme court three times. The court ruled that a settlement needed legislative approval.

“We got pretty close in 2008,” said OHA Trustee Haunani Apoliona, who chaired the board four years ago. “The page turns with this signing of this bill in 2012, but it’s been a very, very, very long time and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, since about 2003 has been working diligently to bring this issue to this day.”

Machado gave credit to OHA attorney William Meheula, who was instrumental in both settlements. “He recommended to the trustees that we take action. We sued the entire legislature and that wasn’t very popular,” she noted.

Meheula said he always had faith a settlement could be reached. He thinks the difference with this settlement is that OHA was very open with the Hawaiian community about the proposed agreement and accepted public comment as the agency conducted its own due diligence. “I think they started to trust us,” he said. “And the Legislature, once they saw the Hawaiian community was together on this, opened up the door to really consider this.”

He added, “I always knew if we presented the right deal, that the Legislature wanted to do this.”

Machado said she told Abercrombie that he willed the settlement to happen on his watch. A few months earlier, Abercrombie had hosted a similar ceremony to sign the state’s Native Hawaiian Recognition Act, which acknowledges Native Hawaiians as the indigenous people of the islands and sets the stage for creation of a Native Hawaiian governing entity.

Abercrombie said settling the issue was a priority for his administration: “This agreement that is now law took a lot of hard work and collaboration. I appreciate all those who took the time to make this right, including the Legislature for making sure that all sides were heard.”

Machado says the agency will now move quickly to create a master plan for the agency’s Kakaako Makai property, which includes Fisherman’s Wharf.