County fast-track land buy raises questions

  • Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder
  • Locator map showing "the Hub" property. Google map.
  • Ashley Kierkiewicz
  • Property set for purchase for Hele-On bus hub in Puna. Hawaii County Real Property Tax Division.

HILO — A fast-tracked bill to buy land owned by a distant relative of Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz is raising questions after her relationship was disclosed when the County Council was asked to approve a $1.45 million appropriation for the purchase and construction of a bus depot there.

Gilbert Aguinaldo, owner of a 1.45 acre, wedge-shaped parcel bounded by Pahoa Bypass Road and Kapoho Road, has entered a $900,000 sales contract with the county.

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Aguinaldo and family members bought the parcel, which has become known as “the Hub,” for $89,100 on Oct. 3, 2012. Soon after, the state purchased a piece of the property to construct the Pahoa-Kalapana Road.

A licensed contractor and electrician, Aguinaldo built an 800-square-foot open-air pavilion and two 720-square-foot buildings, according to records. The county Property Tax Office values the land at $613,800 and shows permits were completed on $316,030 worth of improvements.

The appropriation bill, Bill 131, had its first airing at the Jan. 8 County Council meeting, as it skipped the committee level because the sales contract expires at the end of January. The deal was put together by former Managing Director Wil Okabe, Property Manager Hamana Ventura and Mass Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira and presented to the council as a fait accompli.

That irked Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder, who was under the impression the site selection process was still ongoing, after a consultant hired by the administration evaluated seven potential sites for a project that wasn’t scheduled to commence until the fiscal year that starts July 1.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder asked why he, as a Puna councilman as well as vice chairman of the Public Works and Mass Transit Committee, wasn’t kept in the loop. He said he or his staff attended the community meetings on the issue and they weren’t aware a contract had already been signed. He didn’t like being told the deal had to move fast or someone else might buy the property, likening that to walking into a car dealership.

“I get it — it’s easy but when someone tells us, ‘I want to sell this to you, I’m ready to go,’ it doesn’t mean I go buy it. It means you walk in and make the best decision you can, especially when you’re talking about a million dollars or a million and a half dollars.”

Kierkiewicz, who sponsored the bill at the request of the administration, disclosed in a letter read by Chairman Aaron Chung, that she called Aguinaldo “uncle,” as well as “manong,” as a sign of respect. Kierkiewicz said she and Aguinaldo’s great-grandmothers were blood relations. She said she had no financial interest in the property.

“I do not believe this distant familial relationship would create a conflict with the public and I feel that I can be fair and impartial,” she said in her letter to Chung.

Kanealii-Kleinfelder wasn’t satisfied.

“Because you are putting this out there and it’s not under the radar, it’s in everybody’s face, you’re saying you don’t have a family tie but this lot was distinctly the lot of a family member in some sort of uncle, however you want to state that, and also was like campaign headquarters for Ashley Kierkiewicz.”

Kierkiewicz fired back that she “kind of take(s) offense to that.”

“What the Hub was, was community driven and I was part of (the) community that stepped up to help respond at a very traumatic time for Puna,” she said. “So certainly, it wasn’t a campaign headquarters. It was a hub of services, a place of aloha, for Puna.”

Kierkiewicz did not report any expenditures for a campaign headquarters or an in-kind contribution of one on her 2018 and 2019 reports filed with the state Campaign Spending Commission. She said Thursday she did campaign work electronically or from home or a family member’s or friend’s residence.

“She was definitely not part of any decision making on this. Let’s put that on the record,” Carreira said.

The dispute caused several other council members to suggest postponing the bill to see if the two Puna representatives could meet with the community and reach consensus. But the council agreed to move forward to the final hearing of the bill, slated for Wednesday, and postpone it at that time if need be.

The council voted 6-2 in favor of the measure, with Kanealii-Kleinfelder and Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas voting no and North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff absent. To pass, the bill needs six votes.

The Hub site, designated as site 6, and another site were added after a March 29 community meeting as “identified by a council member and by the county administration,” consultant SSFM International Inc. said in its site evaluation report.

SSFM said Site 3 is the best choice for its size and configuration, but Site 6 is best for moving forward quickly. The consultant recommended entering into a 3-5 year lease with Aguinaldo while the county evaluated the best site.

Site 3, which is near the new police and fire stations, has ample room for park-and-ride parking and is more secure, the consultants said. The property is already under county control through an executive order from the state, which owns the land.

The Hub configuration would allow only 35 parking stalls.

The consultants based their recommendation on four factors: how quickly the site could be in use, sufficient room for the buses to maneuver and to provide park and ride, whether the location supported the economy of Pahoa town and was there a short-term and a long-term solution.

Aguinaldo, who was at the meeting, agreed to give the county an extra two weeks if necessary, but said, “the ball is rolling.”

“The process that we’re at right now with the county is that they wanted to purchase,” he said. “So whatever decision they made is on the county itself.”

This is the third development idea for use of the Hub, which is zoned residential.

Shortly after purchasing the parcel, Aguinaldo started the application process for a rezoning to commercial village in order to build a dialysis center and geriatric clinic. The rezoning never came about.

He then decided to create a cultural center on the site.

Aguinaldo pitched the site as a cultural center at an Aug. 30, 2018, lava recovery meeting of federal, state and local officials, tourism leaders and property owners. The meeting, hosted at Liko Lehua Pauahi cafe in Hilo, was organized by Mainstreet Pahoa.

Aguinaldo was also one of the main organizers of the micro-unit shelter at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

County leaders then incorporated the site in an Oct. 2, 2018, public-private partnership idea where county-contracted shuttle buses would ferry passengers from a parking lot in downtown Pahoa to the Hub, which would feature exhibits, a movie theater, eateries, a gift shop and cultural displays to educate the public.

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The shuttles would then progress to the lava viewing site.

That project also didn’t materialize.