Council moves GET money for Puna bus depot

  • Property considered for purchase for Hele-On bus hub in Puna. Hawaii County Real Property Tax Division.

An administration plan to fast-track a bus depot for Puna by buying land from a politically connected property owner has been derailed by the discovery that the property doesn’t have the environmental clearances the county thought it had.

The County Council last month delayed Bill 131, which would have shifted $1.45 million of general excise tax money into a Mass Transit Agency account in order to purchase 1.45 acres at the intersection of Pahoa Bypass Road and Kapoho Road for $900,000.

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The property is owned by Gilbert Aguinaldo, a member of the Windward Planning Commission and a distant relative of Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz. Kierkiewicz refers to him as “my uncle,” but the relationship is too distant to violate any county rules.

“I had believed that the environmental assessment had been done,” Mass Transit Administrator Brenda Carreira told the council Wednesday.

The council voted 9-0 to move the money, with the understanding that it’s not tied to a specific parcel. Instead, the county will begin the six-to-nine-month EA process, a procedure that will include analysis of alternative sites and a 30-day public input window.

In the meantime, the county is evaluating a temporary site, with the Aguinaldo site (Site 6) and Pahoa regional park (Site 5) as the top candidates. All council members said they favored a temporary site so that a hub-and-spoke system can be established to help revitalize a region devastated by the 2018 eruption of Kilauea volcano.

“We’ve got to get things going, and I trust the administration to make good decisions,” Kohala Councilman Tim Richards said. “We need to help Pahoa; we need to help their economy.”

Consultants had recommended leasing Site 6 as an interim solution until the county could develop a more favorable property, such as Site 3, near the new police and fire stations. Site 6 would fit just 35 parking spaces, making it less than ideal for park-and-ride, a consultant report said.

Two of the parcels are government-owned and wouldn’t require purchasing.

But the administration proceeded with an appraisal on Site 6, and a purchase agreement was in the works, when Puna Councilman Matt Kanealii-Kleinfelder started asking questions. The responses at previous council meetings were confusing, and at times, conflicting.

“I started to see a pattern that worried me, and started to ask questions — and that’s why we’re sitting here right now,” Kanealii-Kleinfelder said. “I want the hub as much as anyone else in this room. …. I just want to know before an acquisition is done that we make a full round of studies … not, ‘This feels good. Let’s do this.’”

“Acquisition of a certain site has clouded this issue a lot,” added North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff.

Kierkiewicz and Kanealii-Kleinfelder last week met with administration officials to try to work out what would be the best plan for their adjoining districts.

“I don’t think anything precludes us from moving forward with this appropriation,” Kierkiewicz said.

Council Chairman Aaron Chung just wanted something to move forward.

“I’m not in any way, shape or form advocating for one site over the other,” Chung said. “Pahoa has been waiting a long time. … We have to make at least some movement, even if it’s symbolic at the time but it leads to something.”

The dozen who testified were overwhelmingly in favor of the administration’s choice of Site 6, seeing it as the quickest solution.

“That’s the heart of the entire district, and something like a bus hub — that’s a transfusion,” said Kerry Kealoha Kelley, president of Mainstreet Pahoa. “The buses are here next month. Let’s put them to work.”

Mark Hinshaw, a longtime resident and volunteer in the area, took Kierkiewicz and Kanealii-Kleinfelder to task. He noted that Puna council members have a history of getting caught up in interpersonal conflicts and Puna ends up suffering as a result.

“I’m tired of seeing the council members from Puna not getting along,” Hinshaw said. “They argue and nothing gets done. … I really, really hope that Ashley and Matt can get together and do ho‘oponopono.”

Former Fire Chief and Civil Defense Director Darryl Oliveira cautioned against picking Site 3, near the new police and fire stations, because it can be a busy place incompatible with buses and crowds.

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Testifier Frankie Stapleton, a retired Tribune-Herald journalist who’s lived on Nanawale Boulevard for 40 years, said the regional park is the best choice.

“It is central to the town and businesses of Pahoa, has freshly paved roads into, around and out of the regional park and with ample space to create a bus shelter. It is all Hawaii County property,” Stapleton said.

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