(BIVN) – The current chair of the Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, Suzanne Case, went before the State Senate Water and Land Committee on April 15 as the nominee to continue serving in the position.
The chair of the senate committee, Hilo State Senator Kai Kahele, took the opportunity to ask Case about some critical management issues facing the piko of Hawaiʻi Island: Pōhakuloa and Mauna Kea.
The DLNR’s handling of the Pōhakuloa and Mauna Kea lands prompted several testimonies in opposition to the nomination. Attorney David Kimo Frankel said that under Case, the DLNR Land Management Division “performance is so bad that a circuit court judge concluded after a week-long trial that BLNR breached its trust obligations in managing the lease at Pohakuloa.” Frankel represented Clarence “Ku” Ching and Maxine Kahaulelio as an attorney for the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation at the time. Frankel also criticized Case for failing to put litigation updates on land board agendas.
Kahele first talked about Pōhakuloa Training Area, the state lease for which is up in 2029. “I was at Pōhakuloa yesterday and watched live-fire exercises,” Sen. Kahele told Case. “I was surprised to find out from the base commander there that they don’t ever go into the area that experiences the live-fire, where the munitions end up, even post exercise. They don’t go in there because of potentially unexploded ordnance. I don’t know if those lands are part of the state’s inventory…”
“No, they’re federal,” Case said.
“Regardless of that, how are we dealing with circuit court’s ruling, in regards to DLNR’s custodial management and care of the leased lands to the U.S. Army?” Kahele asked.
“The finding at the circuit court level was that we violated the public trust by not requiring sufficient cleanup,” Case said. “We didn’t agree with that, and that’s on appeal. There was no finding that the lease itself was breached. It wasn’t even alleged. The court ruling required us to come up with a plan to do regular monitoring and ensure clean up. So our land division did work on a plan, we took it to the land board in the fall, and then took it to the court in December, and I believe the court recently approved the plan. So now we have this monitoring plan in place.”
“How are negotiations going with the US Army for the lease?” Kahele asked.
“They’re really in the beginning stage of the process,” Case answered, adding that Kahele is correct, “that they don’t fire into the state lease land. To the extent that they do live-fire, they do it from” state lands.
Kahele then turned to the Thirty Meter Telescope project planned for Mauna Kea, wondering if the observatory is close to getting a Notice To Proceed with construction on the mountain.
“That’s in process,” Case said. “That’s a process for – I guess it’s TMT – to submit their plans to the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands for review. And they have to review them for whatever consistency with the Conservation District processes, but also for the consistency with the conditions set forth in the permit.”
“So they have not submitted their construction plans?” Kahele asked.
“I believe that they have submitted some preliminary plans that are, at least, for one phase that are under review,” Case said.
“With what you have now – submitted from them – would you be able to issue a Notice To Proceed?” Kahele asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t seen anything,” Case said.
Kahele then turned to the Mauna Kea master lease, currently held by the University of Hawaiʻi, which expires expires on December 31, 2033. Kahele asked Case for her thoughts on a concept for Mauna Kea “where the state of Hawaii issues a master lease for the summit of Mauna Kea, with a certain allocated fixed rent, and then it’s up to the lessee – which would be the University of Hawaiʻi – to then sublease portions of Mauna Kea to various telescope entities to meet the master lease values to fund the Land Division rather than master leasing it for a dollar, we could master lease for right $5 million, right? $10 million.”
“I think that would be a really important point in the next review of the lease,” Case said. “It’s set up, basically, as a non-profit lease. It’s set up to to facilitate astronomy on the mountain. The question of actual rent from the master lease is an open question, and I think deserves review.”
“I know [the Office of Hawaiian Affairs] has concerns about it,” case added, “because they want to ensure that value to the state is recognized for OHA, as well. So it’s it’s a open discussion issue.”
The Senate Committee passed along the nomination with a recommendation to Advise and Consent. The full senate will next vote on the nomination.