KAILUA-KONA — The county is moving forward with plans for a popular Kona beach park, but there’s still a long road ahead.
A month after the Department of Parks and Recreation set a May 31 deadline for comments on plans to implement preservation recommendations at Laaloa Beach Park, the agency said it’s now working to compile that data for the State Historic Preservation Division.
“Then it’s in SHPD’s ball park, and we wait for them,” said Parks and Recreation Director Roxcie Waltjen.
Meanwhile, legal action is aimed at forcing the county to comply with a decades-old preservation plan at the park.
The lawsuit, filed by longtime advocate Ron Cawthon,seeks to restrict the county from undertaking “any additional development activities” near Haukalua Heiau until all protective measures and actions outlined in a 1997 preservation plan and 2006 burial treatment plan are completed and verified by the State Historic Preservation Division.
“We’re just trying to get this plan executed. Protect the site,” said Cawthon, a founding member of the Laaloa Ohana and the group’s spokesperson for the past 25 years. Cawthon also provides updates about advocacy efforts at the “Laaloa Beach Park Kona – Magic Sands” Facebook page.
Specifically, Cawthon has been trying to get the county to abide by recommendations outlined more than 20 years ago in the 1997 report and preservation plan by cultural resources specialist Kepa Maly that identified eight cultural sites within the Laaloa study area, including Haukalua Heiau and burial site.
In addition to pulling together research and oral histories of the site, that report also included short- and long-term recommendations for preserving the site’s resources.
“That would have taken care of all of it,” Cawthon said about the plan.
The 1997 report was followed about a decade later by approval of a burial treatment plan and historic properties preservation plan that restated earlier recommendations and outlined new ones, such as a redesign of the parking lot to accommodate a buffer zone extending 50 feet in all directions from the heiau.
But in the years since the first recommendations were made, Cawthon argues the county failed in its responsibility to implement them, jeopardizing the sites in the area of the park.
“Sadly, attempting to work in harmony with the government of the county of Hawaii has yielded nothing other than decades of deliberate neglect of sacred Hawaiian places, as demonstrated by the current conditions of the sacred historic properties at Laaloa Beach Park,” he wrote in his complaint against the county.
The county closed the parking lot in May 2017, and Cawthon said that happened after he demanded Mayor Harry Kim close it. Since the lot closed, park patrons have been asked to park along Alii Drive or at Kipapa Park, across the street from Laaloa park.
Parks and Recreation at the time said it was working on a plan to reconfigure the parking lot and anticipated reopening the lot with reduced capacity 18 months later.
A 2018 map titled “Laaloa Beach Park parking area modifications” shows plans for the reduced-capacity lot with the exit moved northward and the southern portion of the lot “to be removed.”
The map also shows a 50-foot preservation buffer around Haukalua Heiau, interpretive and cautionary signs and an “interpretive pathway.”
This past May, Parks and Recreation Deputy Director Maurice Messina said the delay in moving forward was tied to a lack of public comment, which culminated in a final request for comments due at the end of that month.
Messina said Tuesday that additional comments were received after the department extended the deadline and it is working to get the compiled data to SHPD “as soon as possible.” The next step, he said, is to allow that agency to go out and do its part in the process.
“And then, depending on their results, we’ll move forward from there,” Messina said.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources, which oversees SHPD, said until SHPD reviews the data, it can’t begin to estimate how long its part will take.
Judge looks at complaint
Meanwhile, part of a lawsuit Cawthon filed earlier this year against the county continues to move forward.
Cawthon’s complaint raised a dozen allegations against the county. Among them were alleged violations of Hawaii administrative rules, preservation plans and state historic preservation laws, as well as causing “direct and indirect injuries” to historic sites in the area. In addition to asking the court to halt further action at the site, he also asked that fines be imposed and that allegations be referred to a grand jury.
At the end of May, 3rd Circuit Chief Judge Greg K. Nakamura dismissed all but one of the counts in the complaint, saying Cawthon didn’t have standing to prosecute violations of state law as that power rests with the attorney general. Similarly, Nakamura said it’s the prosecuting attorney who brings matters to the grand jury.
The count that wasn’t dismissed, Count 10, alleges the proposed changes to the parking lot rely on an inaccurate layout of Haukalua Heiau, calling it a “strange and unknown configuration that is not historically correct.”
The 1997 Maly report, citing archaeologist John Stokes and historian Thomas Thrum, depicts Haukalua Heiau as rectangular in shape and 100-by-75-feet in size.
But the map outlining the proposed parking modifications depicts the heiau with a corner missing on the makai side and a notch out of the mauka side.
Without a proper archaeological survey to determine the heiau’s precise boundaries, Cawthon said in his complaint, the proposed work at the site “would forever alter the historical location and configuration of this site.”
Cawthon asked the court to prevent the county from any more development activities in or near the heiau site until all protective measures and actions outlined in the 1997 preservation plan and 2006 burial plan are completed and verified by the State Historic Preservation Division.
The enforcement provision of the state’s historic preservation law allows anyone to seek a restraining order or injunction against the state or counties on demonstrating “irreparable injury” in order to protect a historic property or burial site from “unauthorized or improper demolition, alteration or transfer” of the property.
In its opposition to Cawthon’s motion for summary judgment, the county argued there has been no “irreparable injury” and disputed that its actions aren’t authorized or appropriate.
Rather, the county said not only are its actions at the park being monitored by the state Board of Land and Natural Resources, such activity is required and therefore “authorized as proper.”
The county also said the “strange configuration” of the heiau Cawthon referenced in his complaint doesn’t qualify as “demolition, alteration or transfer” of the site.
Although Nakamura denied the county’s motion to dismiss that count with the others, he also denied Cawthon’s motion for summary judgment, saying Cawthon didn’t meet the burden of producing evidence or that there are still “genuine issues of material fact” preventing a decision in his favor.
The judge is still expected to rule on the final complaint.
Parks and Recreation referred questions about the lawsuit’s potential impact on its plans to county Corporation Counsel, which did not return a phone call Tuesday.
Email Cameron Miculka at firstname.lastname@example.org.