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Safe or out? Judge hears Kukuihaele Park project arguments

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Attorneys for the county and for Kukuihaele residents opposing the county’s planned improvements — especially a fenced baseball park — argued Tuesday before Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura.

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Attorneys for the county and for Kukuihaele residents opposing the county’s planned improvements — especially a fenced baseball park — argued Tuesday before Hilo Circuit Judge Greg Nakamura.

Georgette Yaindl, representing the Kukuihaele Neighborhood Association and several individual residents of the small former sugar plantation, is seeking an injunction to stop the Department of Parks and Recreation from going ahead with the project until an environmental impact statement is done.

The county in April awarded a $5 million contract to Isemoto Contracting Co. — twice the amount of the original estimated price tag — for construction of a fenced Little League baseball field, dugouts, 18-foot-high chain-link fence backstop, basketball court, 27 parking stalls, pavilion and comfort station on the 4-acre site.

The plaintiffs dispute the findings of the draft and final environmental assessments for the project, prepared by Hilo consultant Ron Terry of Geometrician Associates.

“The court has been presented a package of obfuscation to deny, to try to hide, the undisputed facts that the environment assessment is insufficient and the finding of no significant impact is clearly wrong,” Yaindl told the judge.

Deputy Corporation Counsel Chris Schlueter countered, “The undisputed facts established that the final environmental assessment is a complete and thorough evaluation of potential environmental concerns and satisfies all legal requirements.”

Yaindl argued Parks and Rec failed to provide interested agencies, organizations and citizens copies of the draft EA.

“Instead, what the county did was purportedly send out a letter … which we’d like to note is undated (and says), ‘Dear Participant,’” she said. “The last line there, ‘Kindly indicate whether you wish to receive a copy of … EA availability when it is completed.’ No. That is not a discretionary measure. They are to send it out.”

Yaindl said the findings of the county Department of Water Supply and state Department of Health “were completely ignored in the final environmental assessment” and the Fire Department’s section “doesn’t even address the water needs.”

She also said three of the plaintiffs, who live near or adjacent to the park, weren’t consulted about potential impacts.

“The county alleges it contacted six individuals with known property interests in the park, including (Hamakua) Councilwoman (Valerie) Poindexter,” Yaindl said. “If Councilwoman Poindexter has property interests in this park, she should certainly self-disclose as a particularly self-interested party.”

Yaindl said an EIS would require “in a clear and distinct manner, the statement of need for the project. They also must set forth and elaborate upon the consideration of alternatives in the EIS. Five distinct iterations of alternatives.”

“What are we presented with in the EA?” she continued. “An allusion that there’s a need for a baseball park in Kukuihaele Park because in 1971, a petition was put together to put the baseball park back into being.

“We don’t dispute that in 1950 there was a baseball stadium there which was probably very appropriate, and it was attached to a school. But there is no articulation of need for this project in the EA and the defendant should be required in an EIS … to clearly show the site plan. They are eviscerating 4 acres of freely accessible … use and enjoyment of open space.”

Schlueter asked the judge to deny the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction and grant the county summary judgment, which would effectively dismiss the lawsuit. Saying the park’s “footprint” is a baseball field, he called the plaintiff’s position on the county’s proposal “ironic.”

“The plaintiffs’ primary objection, as far as I can tell, is that they object to the proposed ball field and the fencing,” he said. “They selfishly want to obstruct the construction of a ball field … that would benefit the Kukuihaele-Honokaa communities. Baseball and softball are important to those communities. There is a demand for baseball and softball facilities.”

That assertion from the county’s attorney elicited a polite but audible response in the courtroom gallery.

“A ballpark, really?” said one individual.

“It’s our neighborhood,” another said.

“The plaintiffs insist they have the right to unilaterally determine how the Kukuihaele Park will be used, regardless of the needs of the community. They wish to impose their value preferences,” Schlueter told the judge. “Plaintiffs’ personal preferences are not a valid base to invalidate the EA or prevent the project.”

“So, the determination under the environmental assessment as to whether there is a significant impact on the environment doesn’t deal with the ‘need’ aspect, though, just certain criteria that the environmental assessment has to take a look at though, right?” Nakamura asked.

“I think that’s true, judge,” Schlueter replied.

“It’s only if you go to the environmental impact statement that there’s analysis as to need, although it’s true … that in the environmental assessment, you look at alternatives,” Nakamura said.

“Judge, the larger point is, the plaintiffs feign concern for the environment and allege (Hawaii Environmental Protection Act) violations,” Schlueter said. “The written comments (on the environmental assessment) demonstrate their opposition has little to do with the environment. It’s offensive that a small faction of neighbors would argue that the environment is impacted. But secondarily, they argue that their value preferences should be given weight.”

The judge said he would take the matter under advisement and issue a ruling later.

David Allen, one of the plaintiffs, said afterward he was told the ballpark could be used only for baseball or softball and not for any other purpose. He said the remaining open space would only be “30-by-60 (feet) out of 4 acres” and added he fears road widening called for in the plan might cause some residents’ homes to be condemned.

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“They’re putting the desires of people in Hilo and Honokaa over the needs of the residents of Kukuihaele,” he said.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.