New outrage, fresh questions as Punaluu Boat Ramp pohaku debate rages on

New outrage, fresh questions as Punaluu Boat Ramp pohaku debate rages on
Published: Jun. 27, 2017 at 9:59 PM HST|Updated: Jun. 28, 2017 at 9:53 AM HST
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KAILUA-KONA, HAWAII (HawaiiNewsNow) - A town hall meeting on Monday night unleashed new outrage and fresh questions about an unauthorized construction project at the Punaluu Boat Launch over the weekend.

Members of the community say they were angered after the owner of a local tour boat operation – who has since apologized – attempted to modify the ramp, using heavy construction equipment to do so.

Now, county officials say the boat owner – as well as the landowner, S M Investment Partners, which is a sister company Roberts Hawaii, could face violations. Roberts Hawaii has a 25% interest in S M Investment Partners.

Last week's unpermitted modifications at the historic Punaluu Boat Launch Ramp, known for its black sand and nesting turtles, lead to a multi-agency investigation involving federal, state and county agencies. It also lead to an apology from the man who did the work: Simon Velaj, owner of Hang Loose Boat Tours.

"What I'm saying guys, what I did there, it was not intentional. What I did was a mistake. It was an honest mistake," said Velaj, a statement that inflamed the crowd of about 100 people at the Naalehu Community Center.

Last Thursday, campers and residents saw and documented on video Velaj using a backhoe to grade the pillars at the boat ramp and move rocks and dirt. They say they're worried about destruction of the historic site, dirt leeching into the water and the desecration of a sacred heiau.

"Protect not only Punaluu, but all of Ka'u. All of it," said one resident on a Facebook video streamed by Demetrius Oliveira.

"So how would you like for us to just come to your church and bulldoze one wall," asked another.

Hawaii News Now obtained an April 2017 agreement between S M Investment Partners and the tour boat operator to allow him to use the ramp for commercial operations for $3,700 per month.

At the meeting, Guy Enriques of the community non-profit, O Ka'u Kakou, said in January, his organization had approached Roberts Hawaii for a donation. The company turned down the request, but also told the non-profit about its lava tour plans at Punaluu. Enriques said three weeks ago, the boat's captain told them about the same lava tour plans – even though Hang Loose Boat Tours is not one of the four lava tour boats with state permits. It's on the wait list.

O Ka'u Kakou said it was against the plan from the beginning.

"We (Roberts Hawaii) are thinking about launching lava tours and I said, 'Ain't no way in hell you are going to do that,'" said Enriques.

On Friday, after learning of the unpermitted work, S M Investment Partners quickly disassociated itself from Hang Loose and Velaj by terminating their agreement.

On Monday, Vice-President of Roberts Hawaii, Roy Pfund also issued a statement saying "We were surprised and upset to learn about his unpermitted actions at the wharf, and immediately canceled our agreement with him."

Wil Okabe, the county's Managing Director, says neither Roberts Hawaii nor Hang Loose informed the county about lava tour plans and thinks there could be violations against them both.

"I think the landowner and also the boat operator have to take responsibility," said Okabe.

"The lessee needs to follow through in regards to government agencies, but he didn't do that and I guess the landowner didn't follow through to check to see if he got the approval before he started to do this activity," he said. 

Okabe said this issue at the Punaluu Boat Launch Ramp points to how lava viewing is big business – and how everyone is trying to cash in.

Roberts Hawaii says it wouldn't comment about the investigation, since it hasn't been contacted by the county, but said it didn't authorize work on the ramp.

"Hang Loose Boat Tours was responsible for ensuring its commercial operation was in full compliance with all applicable laws, including proper notification of appropriate government agencies. We were very disappointed to learn that did not turn out to be the case," wrote Pfund.

On Monday, Velaj told Hawaii News Now he was only cleaning the area and he tried to notify the community, but was unsuccessful. On Tuesday, he would only say he's frustrated with the DLNR's lava tour permitting process.

DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward issued a statement saying its "Division of Boating Ocean and Recreation is writing to Velaj to ask where he plans to launch since the launch owner has rescinded permission for ocean access via their private property."

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