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Despite opposition, bill that would allow 99-year leases of public lands poised for approval

Updated: Apr. 26, 2021 at 3:07 PM HST
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HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Despite strong opposition from the Native Hawaiian community, a measure that opens the door to century-long leases of public lands is poised for passage in the state Legislature.

The full state House and Senate are set to vote on the proposal Tuesday.

House Bill 499 gives the Board of Land and Natural Resources the authority to extend leases of public lands by 40 years ― on top of current 65-year maximum leases.

Resorts, commercial, industrial, government and mixed-use leases would be eligible for an extension as long as they meet several requirements, including making substantial improvements to the property in the form of renovations or developments.

Hilo’s Prince Kuhio Plaza, for example, sits on land owned by DHHL and has undergone millions of dollars in renovations in recent year. In testimony, the plaza said a lease extension would help re-affirm a commitment to future investments as a gathering spot for the Hilo community.

Lawmakers advanced the bill despite an overwhelming amount of testimony in opposition. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs along with the the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation have both come out against the measure, pointing to ignored concerns over land rights for Native Hawaiians.

“Public concern over this bill is understandable because you have to look at the fact of the bill, and that is, it alienates these public lands out of the public land trust,” said Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation’s Director of Litigation David Kauila Kopper.

“Regardless of the intent, it sends a message to the public, it sends a message to Native Hawaiians that their claims to those lands, their interests and the history surrounding these lands do not matter,” Kopper added.

But lawmakers like Sen. Lorraine Inouye, chair of the Water and Land Senate Committee, say lease extensions ensure economic benefit for Hawaii that “absolutely” outweigh concerns from critics.

“I have a difficult time accepting a reality that it’s ceded lands, and that it’s lands that are taken away from our Hawaiian people. That’s totally not true because it’s providing economic survival ... with the income that’s generated from any business on DHH lands as well as those on the public lands,” she said.

Opponents to the bill also worry that extending leases will lead to a lack of oversight and less say on how lands are occupied during the duration of the lease.

“There really is a concern here over the way our public lands are being treated like a commodity that can be leased without proper public input and oversight,” Kopper said.

“Periodically, over time, if these lands continue to just be leased out or sold, when it comes time for Native Hawaiian claims to be resolved, there may not be adequate lands left to create that land base or to otherwise address their interests,” he added.

Inouye says the bill isn’t aiming to issue new leases on untouched parcels of land, but rather focuses on businesses that have already weaved their way into the fabric of local communities statewide.

“The lands that we talk about are already occupied. So these are all extensions of leases. And so, are you gonna tear down a mall? Or tear down or get rid of those industrial leases that provide the benefits to the people? The auto shops, the lumber yards?”

The amended bill is now up for a floor vote in both the Senate and the House on Tuesday.

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