Neighbors seek purchase of ‘Fissure 8’ with PONC funds

  • USGS photo Aerial view of the Fissure 8 lava flow in Kilauea Volcano’s lower East Rift Zone from August 2019.

Neighbors of Puna’s internationally famous “Fissure 8” want the still smoldering volcanic vent preserved for future generations, and they’re asking a county land-buying commission to purchase it using taxpayer money.

A group from neighboring Leilani Estates made a presentation Monday to the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission, one of 26 presentations for properties under consideration for purchase this year.

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Alice Lindahi said the area should be preserved as a natural wonder, with preservation of the fragile features prioritized while creating educational opportunities and a nature trail for tourists to help control and channel the inevitable crowds away from residential areas once the coronavirus pandemic is finished.

“The whole place sparkles just like a kaleidoscope of color when the sun comes out,” Lindahi said. “Some of these fissures are still steaming and rumbling but no one has seen them. … It’s like a miniature volcanic park except its still warm and you can hear the fissures growling.”

Lindahi, in what she said was the first public airing of the concept, said a PONC purchase of 726 parcels for open space could bring a tourist attraction to lower Puna, bring more commerce to Pahoa, preserve the site for geological and cultural education for future generations and help prevent ecological destruction of the site.

“That’s really making your lemons into lemonade,” noted PONC Chairman Wayne Frank.

The commission will weigh the nominations throughout the course of the year, making site visits and rating the sites for a report to Mayor Mitch Roth.

The Hawaii Board on Geographic Names last week approved the name Ahu‘aila‘au, which refers to the altar of the volcano deity ‘Aila‘au, for the fissure. The fissure was the most active — and destructive — element during the 2018 Kilauea eruption in lower Puna, drawing scientists, adventure tourists and thrill-seekers from around the world.

The lava flow swallowed 725 acres and destroyed 612 homes. Using $83.8 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds, the county has started a voluntary buyout program, with priority to low and middle income owners of primary homes.

Eligible properties include those that were inundated or isolated by lava, suffered physical damage (including from fires and wildfires caused by lava) or have been physically impacted by secondary effects, including heat and gases at their property.

Rick Warshauer asked how a PONC purchase would interface with the federal program, with Lindahi responding that many properties wouldn’t qualify and the federal purchases will be “several years down the line.”

“I think it could do nothing but help because it would be county owned property,” she said.

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The PONC acquisition fund comes from a sweep of 2% annually from county property tax revenues. Another 0.25% is taken for the PONC maintenance fund. The maintenance fund is used for grants to nonprofits to help maintain the property, among other things. As of Feb. 28, there was $18.4 million in the acquisition fund and $3.2 million in the maintenance fund, according to PONC records.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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