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County asks lawmakers to mull $680 million disaster recovery plan

  • HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file photo

    Fissure 8 feeds the river of lava July 19 in Leilani Estates.

Hawaii County has increased the price tag of its draft Kilauea disaster recovery plan to $680 million as administrators begin to make their pitch to lawmakers.

The proposal, which remains a work in progress, goes beyond providing housing for those displaced by the eruption or relocating farmers. It also seeks to create new or improved economic centers in the underserved district, and a redevelopment agency with authority to make it happen.

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Roy Takemoto, an executive assistant to Mayor Harry Kim, said the intent is to take the opportunity to make Puna a more “sustainable” place to live.

“Because right now, it’s substandard subdivisions,” he said, “and awful traffic. And if we just threw people into the existing pattern of development, we’re just going to exacerbate that situation.”

The bulk of the funding is expected to come from federal sources, assuming the recovery grants are approved, he said. The state could be asked to chip in a net amount of $150 million, with the county contributing $35 million based on the most recent estimates, he said.

But lawmakers aren’t giving the county the green light yet for a special session of the Legislature, which Takemoto said needs to be held before October. Otherwise, the requests would have to wait until the 2019 regular session.

During a meeting Monday, leaders in the Legislature and representatives from Hawaii Island met with county officials to discuss the recovery proposal.

State Sen. Kai Kahele, D-Hilo, said the legislators told Kim they need more information before convening a special session that would be needed to approve more aid. He said the county was given two weeks to come back with more information about what it needs in the short-term for funding and how it has spent the $12 million Gov. David Ige provided for disaster response.

“I think the basic bottom line is the Legislature wants to help,” Kahele said. “In what shape or form, we’re not sure. We’re waiting for the county to tell us what they need.”

There were concerns that legislators who represent the disaster area weren’t involved early enough in the process, he said.

“The communication between the county administration and the legislators, especially the area legislators, up to this point has not been good,” Kahele said.

Takemoto said the county wanted to present a fuller picture before bringing everyone to the table.

“I think the first thing was to have something that everybody could give feedback on,” he said.

Puna Councilwoman Eileen O’Hara said there are still pieces missing. Late last week, County Council members received a spreadsheet with proposals for how the $680 million would be spent, but she said it left a lot of questions unanswered.

“There’s still a lot of questions about what we are going to do with this money and how it’s going to be applied,” O’Hara said. “I don’t really see a way to pitch this plan unless we have a little more detail.”

Takemoto acknowledged that it remains a work in progress, and that some figures, such as the number of permanent housing units, aren’t settled yet. He called the spreadsheet a “very rough draft.”

“All we’re asking for is the tools to help us do this work,” Takemoto said. “The actual plan is to come. We need the money, the expertise to engage in the planning.”

The ‘future of Puna’

Kim has called the recovery plan the “future of Puna.”

The proposal, according to the spreadsheet provided to council members, doesn’t seem to fall short of that ambition.

The post-disaster wish list includes funding for everything from transitional and permanent housing for evacuees, the formation of a redevelopment agency to guide recovery in Puna and other areas impacted by the eruption, agricultural lots and seedlings for displaced farmers, the purchase of inundated properties at pre-eruption values, and even planning for Banyan Drive redevelopment and expansion of the Bayfront trails in Hilo.

Takemoto said the Hilo projects are intended to help the island recover economically, but are probably the lowest priority.

The permanent housing solutions include development of a town center in Hawaiian Paradise Park and infrastructure improvements for Keaau town, with evacuees given preference for housing that would go with both projects. If not enough evacuees choose those options, the units would be used as affordable housing, Takemoto said.

Transitional housing units would be built on county land next to the Panaewa Equestrian Center.

Takemoto said these ideas will not just take money, but also a lot of community dialogue to make happen.

One issue that remains undecided is whether the county should buy lots that were inundated or isolated by lava or other properties in Puna’s Lava Zone 1.

Takemoto said no decisions have been made about that issue, including whether purchases should be mandatory or voluntary if they happened. Kim has dismissed talk of stopping construction in the area, calling it “counterproductive.”

But buying lots is an option the county hasn’t shut the door on completely. The spreadsheet identifies $189 million to purchase properties.

Takemoto said that amount is based on the cost of purchasing land at 100 percent of the pre-disaster value for properties that are inundated or isolated, and for the remaining properties in Leilani Estates.

“That shouldn’t be interpreted that way,” Takemoto said, when asked if that means the county is considering relocating all Leilani residents.

Takemoto acknowledged the county is aiming high when it comes to recovery.

“If we weren’t doing anything or not doing as much as we are, I think it’s just lost opportunity,” he said. “Status quo is easy, but to seize the opportunity to make things better, that’s what we would lose.”

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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Draft recovery plan highlights

Response ($145 million)

— $10 million, Highway 11 bypass

— $120 million, overtime for 60 months

Transitional housing ($26.79 million)

— $5 million, construction of 100 units

— $2.5 million, Section 8 housing vouchers

— $15 million, “Package plant”

Permanent housing, Keaau ($70.45 million)

— $48 million, wastewater treatment plant

— $10 million, new water well

— $5 million, 50 housing units

— $3 million, roads

Permanent housing/town center, Hawaiian Paradise Park ($24.9 million)

— $10 million, water lines to town center

— $5 million, septic systems

— $3 million, roads to town center

— $3 million, site development

Keonepoko housing/agriculture ($29.75 million)

— $10 million, water

— $3 million, roads

— $5 million, wastewater

— $5 million, 50 housing units

Economic recovery ($31.45 million)

— $12 million, emergency loans for farmers, ranchers

— $10 million, Hilo Bayfront trails

— $1.5 million, Banyan Drive redevelopment studies

— $2 million, Pahoa parking

— $3.85 million, land clearing for farm, nursery relocation

Infrastructure ($143.75 million)

— $71 million, road improvements

— $66 million, Keaau police and fire relocation; transit hub; school replacement; park replacement

Department of Health ($6.3 million)

— $1.5 million, site development for air quality monitors

— $4.2 million, salaries and wages

Impact area ($197.65 million)

— $189 million, property acquisition in Lava Zone 1

— $5 million, visitor support facility

Redevelopment agency ($9.01 million)

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— $8.58 million, salaries and wages

Figures from spreadsheet presented to County Council members.