After long wait, feds to once again back loans for homestead land cleared of WWII-era munitions

The wait could soon be over for hundreds of homesteaders who want to build or purchase a house on Hawaiian lands in West Hawaii.
Published: May. 30, 2023 at 4:41 PM HST|Updated: May. 30, 2023 at 5:18 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - The wait could soon be over for hundreds of homesteaders who want to build or purchase a house on Hawaiian lands in West Hawaii.

It’s been nearly a decade since the federal government stopped backing loans on property within the Waikoloa Maneuver Area, a 100,000-acre plot on land riddled with bombs left behind by the military after World War II.

But now, officials say clean-up efforts at Puukapu in Waimea are nearly complete.

Puukapu’s rolling hills and pasture land make it a picturesque place to build a home on Hawaii Island.

But for many Native Hawaiians, lost military munitions hidden within this rural community have brought dreams of owning a house here to a halt.

For years, scores of Department of Hawaiian Homeland beneficiaries have patiently waited for the land to be deemed safe enough so they can get a loan to build or buy.

Shirley Derego is a business development manager for VIP Mortgage.

She works with homesteaders directly and said it’s been heartbreaking to turn people away over the last decade.

“They’re excited because they have the land, they want to build their home,” she said.

“After that I have to tell them financing is not available. Because it’s a bomb zone, a ‘no further action’ letter is needed to provide with your financing to HUD (Housing and Urban Development) so they insure the loan.”

She said there are 468 lessees in Puukapu.

The 11,000-acre site sits on the eastern edge of the Waikoloa Maneuver Area, a swath of land in West Hawaii extending from the popular Waikoloa resorts to Waimea and beyond.

During the height of World War II, an estimated 50,000 Marines trained for combat there, battering the land with grenades, mortars projectiles and bombs.

Eight decades and numerous clean-ups later, finding old munitions is still relatively common.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers says it’s recovered and safely detonated more than 2,700 since the early 2000s. Officials say the relics remain energized ― and have the potential to maim or kill.

Over the years, at least four people have died coming in contact with the hidden hazards.

Two decades into the latest clean-up, Army Corps officials confirm less than 1% of the Waikoloa Maneuver Area is safe enough for the government to want to sign off on a loan.

“Some people have been waiting since 2014,” Derego said. “They just keep waiting.”

Then last Tuesday, some homesteaders got the news they’ve been waiting years for.

In a community meeting, officials announced work at Puukapu is complete.

“Because of where it sits and how it was used, it went through a little faster process,” said Army Corps of Engineers Waikoloa Program Manager David Griffin. “We found no evidence of military use of munitions out there.”

The government says all that’s left now is paperwork, but exactly when those documents will be filed isn’t clear.

Advocates pushed to nail down a date, saying the community has waited long enough.

“How about before Father’s Day,” asked Restoration Advisory Board Member Niihau Kawaihae.

Griffin responded, “I really can’t commit to a date. What I can commit to though is this getting a lot of attention and to make sure it’s done as expeditiously as possible.”

Derego called the announcement a win.

“I’ve been waiting a long time to hear the ‘no further action’ letter is on its way,” she said.

Now families who have been forced to put their plans for a home in Puukapu on hold can start moving forward.

Derego said, “It’s just a matter of time before everyone who’s been waiting to build homes can.”

Overall, the clean-up of old munitions in the Waikoloa Maneuver Area is still far from being over.

The Army Corps estimates work to remove bombs won’t end until at least 2053.

Meanwhile, officials want people in the Waikoloa Maneuver Area to remember the three Rs if they spot something that doesn’t look right: Recognize that it’s a potential hazard. Do not pick it up and retreat. And report it to 911.