The year in review 2015

Maui County’s top stories for 2015 stem from a wide range of news events – those involving health care, the environment, housing development, criminal justice, severe weather, a new sports venue, disputes arising from a Makawao cemetery expansion and even political hanky-panky.

They are snapshots of pieces of a much bigger picture. In most cases, they are chapters of developing stories, pointing to what’s ahead as 2016 begins.

So, in no particular order, here’s The Maui News’ top 10 stories for 2015:

Maui hospitals privatization bill approved

After three years of trying, state lawmakers overcame strong labor union opposition and passed a Maui region hospital privatization bill in May, paving the way for the transfer of Maui Memorial Medical Center and other Maui facilities to a private nonprofit organization.

Passage of House Bill 1075 came after Gov. David Ige took the unusual step of getting personally involved in the last couple of weeks of the legislative session. Ige added in provisions that strengthened protections for hospital employees, ensuring their jobs would be protected for at least six months. The revised bill also allowed the governor’s administration to direct negotiations in conjunction with Hawaii Health Systems Corp. and its Maui Region board with potential private partners.

HHSC had projected a deficit of $800 million over the next 10 years for Maui region facilities. Before passage of the bill, Maui Memorial faced a cut of $28 million in services and positions in the next fiscal year.

Maui region facilities include Maui Memorial Medical Center and the Kula and Lanai Community hospitals.

Ige signed the bill in June. Kaiser Permanente and Hawaii Pacific Health submitted proposals to the Maui Region board, which selected Kaiser in September.

Officials had hoped terms and conditions would be finalized by the end of 2015, with implementation beginning in 2016. But, as of Wednesday, a final agreement had not been completed. Now, officials hope to have an agreement finalized before the Jan. 20 opening of the Legislature’s session.

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Record-setting hurricane season, sultry weather

More than a dozen tropical storms – eight of which packed hurricane-force winds – brought heavy rains, high surf and hot, muggy conditions from early July through late October.

The tropical storms came with names like Ela, the first tropical storm of the season from July 8 to 10 with maximum-sustained winds of 45 mph; and Ignacio, a hurricane from Aug. 27 to Sept. 4, with winds that reached 145 mph.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration officials counted 15 tropical storms in the Central Pacific, but none of them made landfall, although heavy rains and flash flooding affected the state from the Big Island to Oahu.

High temperature records were broken 10 times and tied eight times at Kahului Airport from June 20 through the end of October, according to Glenn James, senior weather specialist at the Pacific Disaster Center in Kihei. The highest temperature was 97 degrees on Aug. 22, he said. (The highest temperature ever recorded at Kahului was 98 degrees, set on Aug. 19, 1951.)

After returning to classes in late July, public school students and teachers suffered hot, sultry conditions – many without air conditioning. A public outcry led school officials to ramp up installations of portable air-conditioning units. Community groups and others donated fans and water coolers.

This year’s 15 tropical storms smashed the annual record of 11 tropical cyclones in the region set in 1992 and 1994. In a normal year (hurricane season is from June 1 through Nov. 30), only four to five tropical storms develop or move across the Central Pacific, according to NOAA.

The busy hurricane season was “heavily influenced” by a strong El Nino in which widespread warm ocean temperatures pump heat and moisture into the atmosphere, making conditions ripe for tropical storms, according to the agency.

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Federal judge strikes down GMO moratorium

Following a highly contested Nov. 4, 2014, ballot initiative, supporters of a Maui County moratorium on genetically engineered crops celebrated a narrow victory and looked forward to it to being implemented in 2015.

But just nine days later, the moratorium ordinance was challenged in court by Monsanto, Dow Agrigenetics, other seed companies and their supporters.

On June 30, U.S. District Chief Judge Susan Oki Mollway struck down the GMO moratorium, ruling it was “invalid and unenforceable.”

In her 56-page order, Mollway said that the ordinance is pre-empted by federal and state law and exceeds the county’s authority.

Maui County officials pledged to abide by the court’s ruling.

Leaders of the SHAKA Movement, a citizens group that gathered enough signatures for the first-ever ballot initiative in the county, filed an appeal of the decision Nov. 30 with the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, according to attorney Michael Carroll.

Supporters of the moratorium initiative described Mollway’s ruling as “a big blow to Maui County voters.”

In an interview after Mollway’s decision, Carroll said that the ruling “not only ignores the will of the people, but places at risk all state and local regulations that seek to address the harmful impacts associated with GMO operations.”

If the moratorium had been upheld by the court, it would have made it illegal to cultivate, grow or test genetically engineered crops “until studies prove they are safe” as determined by the Maui County Council.

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Haleakala solar telescope sparks protests

While Native Hawaiian protests raged on the Big Island over construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope atop Mauna Kea, Maui saw protesters oppose ongoing work on the $300 million Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope atop Haleakala.

In July and August, hundreds of people protested and 28 people were arrested while attempting to stop a convoy of wide-load trucks from delivering telescope parts to the Haleakala summit. The protests happened at the Central Maui Baseyard July 31 and at the baseyard and then at the foot of Crater Road in Kula on Aug. 20.

Last month, the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated a construction permit for the Mauna Kea telescope, but officials for the Haleakala telescope project said that the high court’s ruling did not affect the Maui telescope work because it was being done under a 2012 conservation district use permit for which there was a contested case.

The University of Hawaii and the National Science Foundation have been developing the telescope designed to allow astrophysicists to study solar magnetism and its impact on the Earth’s climate. Construction began Nov. 30, 2012. County officials said last year that the 14-story structure was about half done.

Native Hawaiian group Kilakila ‘o Haleakala has opposed the Maui telescope project for years and still has two pending court cases against it.

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Courthouse drama unfolds from Molokai

Last year, 2nd Circuit Court was the scene of a number of courtroom dramas involving Molokai defendants charged with murder, attempted murder and/or assault.

In August, Molokai resident Marlin Lavoie, 35, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, plus another 20 years in prison, for the March 20, 2013, shooting death of 24-year-old Malia Kahalewai, the mother of his four children.

Witnesses said that, the night of the killing, Lavoie went to Kahalewai’s friend’s apartment and tried to get her to go with him. After Kahalewai refused and repeatedly told him to leave, Lavoie went to his car and came back with a rifle, shooting her once in the chest and killing her.

During a trial in June, jurors heard from 38 witnesses and reviewed 57 exhibits. They found Lavoie guilty as charged of second-degree murder, using a firearm in the commission of a felony, being a felon in possession of a firearm and keeping a loaded firearm in an improper place.

The defense maintained Lavoie was suffering from mental illness and was under extreme mental or emotional disturbance and wasn’t criminally responsible for the killing. The defense asked jurors to convict Lavoie of manslaughter, which carries a maximum 20-year sentence.

In another case, Molokai resident Pakluke Lau, 39, was sentenced to 10 years in prison in November after a 2nd Circuit jury found him guilty in a September trial of first-degree assault. Originally, he had been charged with first-degree attempted murder for repeatedly ramming the pickup truck of his ex-girlfriend, Mahie McPherson.

According to testimony, Lau was driving his mother’s Kia Sportage when he rammed McPherson’s Toyota Tacoma from behind, then slammed into the driver’s side of the truck at least five times on a two-lane portion of Kamehameha V Highway on Jan. 7.

In the last collision, McPherson’s truck crashed into kiawe trees, and the Kia went through a chain-link fence across the road and hit a tree at Kaunakakai Elementary School. Lau was flown to Oahu for surgery for a broken left thigh bone, and McPherson sustained a concussion and whiplash.

Lau had wanted to have breakfast with McPherson on her birthday, but she told him she couldn’t because she needed to go to work. McPherson and her family members testified that Lau assaulted, stalked and terrorized them for five years.

McPherson was able to testify about some of the incidents during the trial, including some that happened while her young daughters were present.

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Development proposals draw support, ire

As has happened in years past, Maui’s community faced a dilemma with big development proposals in 2015.

Should developers be allowed to build subdivisions that provide much-needed affordable housing and jobs? Or, are the environmental costs too high?

That debate played out a number of times through the year, in varying degrees.

Hundreds of people turned out to speak before the state Land Use Commission regarding the proposed 1,500-home Olowalu Town development in November and December. After hearing 11 hours of expert testimony and public comments, the commission voted 6-1 on Dec. 7 to reject the project’s nearly 4,000-page draft final environmental impact statement.

Commissioners maintained that the document fell short of answering questions about traffic impacts, cultural resources and archaeological sites. Much of the community opposition focused on the project’s impact on Olowalu’s reef and coastline.

The project developers have 60 days to appeal the decision to the Hawaii Environmental Council.

Meanwhile, A&B Properties’ proposed Wai’ale South development received a recommendation for approval from the Maui Planning Commission in November. The project advanced to the Maui County Council. Plans call for construction of 950 single-family and multifamily homes on nearly 123 acres south of Waiko Road and abutting Kuihelani Highway.

The commission heard testimony about the community’s need to ease pent-up demand for more housing. Opponents questioned whether the development would deliver enough affordable housing or whether it would be truly “affordable.”

Others said A&B did not do enough to determine whether ancient human burials would be disturbed by construction.

Another project moving forward was the Waikapu Country Town project, a 1,600-acre development that would be built on both sides of Honoapiilani Highway and centered on the Maui Tropical Plantation. The project is planned to house 8,000 people in about 1,500 units that include ohana homes.

The Land Use Commission gave its approval in April for the project to prepare an environmental impact statement.

Last month, the Ma’alaea Community Association and Maui Tomorrow Foundation filed a lawsuit against Maui County and developers of the proposed fast-tracked Ma’alaea Plantation subdivision.

The lawsuit contends the project’s environmental assessment contains erroneous statements and lacks legally required information. The plaintiffs are asking a judge to order the preparation of a more extensive environmental impact statement for the project.

The project calls for building 58 affordable and 55 market-priced rural lots of at least 1 acre each. The property’s 257 acres are tucked between the West Maui Mountains and Honoapiilani Highway.

The defendants have until this month to answer the complaint.

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Sugar cane burning is back in the hot seat

Sugar cane burning continued to be a flashpoint for Maui residents and visitors in 2015, stirring up dozens of letters to the editor, protests and complaints about breathing problems, burning eyes and alarm about long-term health impacts.

In July, the group Stop Cane Burning filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Health, asking a judge to declare the department’s air pollution control regulatory system, which permits open-air agricultural burning, unlawful. The group also sought an injunction preventing the practice.

The Stop Cane Burning group later asked the court to order a halt to cane burning, pending the outcome of the lawsuit, a move that would shut down Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar Co., Hawaii’s last surviving sugar plantation.

The plaintiffs allege the Health Department, by issuing an open-burn permit to HC&S, violated the public trust doctrine by putting the public’s health at risk. The group wants to invalidate HC&S’ burn permit and ban the company from conducting agricultural burning operations.

In September, Kihei residents Deborah Mader and John Fitzpatrick petitioned the state Department of Health, calling for stricter rules and more oversight of cane burning by HC&S.

They maintained that the burnings are “unnecessary from both a technical and economic standpoint,” and that they have “serious health consequences for the public.”

Cane-burning opponents were incensed by a May 27 burn in which cane smoke engulfed South Maui for several hours. The Department of Health investigated that incident and held a formal comment period on HC&S’ burn permit. The comments were to be used to determine whether improvements could be made to permit conditions.

In November, cane harvesting sent smoke and ash into Central Maui neighborhoods. A Nov. 3 incident brought more than 50 complaints, according to stopcaneburning

.org. But HC&S General Manager Rick Volner said the company received only two direct complaints that day for the burn of a 75-acre field 3 miles southeast of Kahului.

HC&S has said it complies with extensive state DOH permit requirements and that burning is economically necessary for its cane harvesting operations.

In October, a study in the journal Environmental Health linked sugar cane burning and acute respiratory illnesses on Maui, although HC&S disputed the study’s findings and research methodology.

The study’s researchers included Maui District Health officer Dr. Lorrin Pang, who said there were more instances of respiratory problems on “no burn days” than on days on which cane was burned. He said that those instances could can be attributed to vog, volcanic ash carried on southeast winds from the Big Island.

Pang defended the study, which he said looked at the ratio of respiratory illnesses of those living downwind of cane fields versus those living upwind. The study found that slightly more patients living downwind of cane fields had respiratory distress on burn days when compared with nonburn days.

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The mayor’s dealings with a movie mogul

In the early fall of 2015, The Maui News obtained a more than 2-year-old, secretly recorded conversation between former Maui Film Commissioner Harry Donenfeld and top members of the administration of Mayor Alan Arakawa.

The recording led to stories detailing the extent of the mayor’s close relationship with movie mogul Ryan Kavanaugh, a part-time Maui resident who was chief executive officer of Relativity Media and a friend and political supporter of the mayor.

Recorded outside a Starbucks in Kahului on March 5, 2013, the conversation included county Managing Director Keith Regan (now a candidate for the Maui County Council’s Wailuku-Waihee-Waikapu seat), Communications Director Rod Antone and Chief of Staff Herman Andaya Jr. They were unaware they were being recorded.

Donenfeld said he recorded the conversation because he feared for his job because he believed he had run afoul of Kavanaugh. (Donenfeld was fired in the fall of 2013, officially because he wasn’t reporting to work in the county Office of Economic Development.)

The administration officials’ unguarded comments showed how they were eager to appease Kavanaugh, who had taken offense to a Maui News report that an independent film studio, Maui Film Studios, had leased a warehouse at the Maui Lani Village Center and had outfitted it with a 21,000-square-foot soundstage.

The same day the news story was published, Antone put Donenfeld under a “gag order” not to talk about it. And, Donenfeld was told to come to the meeting at Starbucks.

In the recording, Regan tells Donenfeld that the Mayor’s Office was coming under fire from Kavanaugh and “his people.”

“We get this article, and then we get emails,” Regan said. “We get phone calls. We’re getting bombarded by people wanting comments, wanting interviews, wanting press releases.

“We’ve got Ryan Kavanaugh and his people saying ‘What the f–k’s going on? What are you guys doing? Why didn’t you tell us about this? Why are we only reading about this in the newspaper?’ And (they’re) really upset to the point where they’re like, ‘We thought we had a relationship with you guys but obviously we don’t.’ ”

Later, Regan tells Donenfeld that the administration officials’ primary goal was to get Arakawa re-elected in 2014.

“Nothing else really matters because if the mayor is not re-elected none of us have jobs,” he said. “Let’s be very frank. We’re all political. We’re very connected to the mayor. If he loses, we lose. Our families lose. Those who depend on us lose.”

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After 13 years Lahainaluna gets stadium

Even before the Lahainaluna High School football team launched another successful season (reaching the state tournament for a ninth season in a row), its players, coaches and fans had another reason to celebrate.

In August, the school opened Sue D. Cooley Stadium, the culmination of a 13-year project that started in 2002 with work to improve the school’s former cinder practice field. The new $9 million facility has 3,000 seats for Luna fans.

The stadium’s first official game was held Aug. 8, with the Lunas hosting Keaau in a preseason game. (Lahainaluna won its first home game at the stadium, 65-6.)

“There was never any doubt that this day was going to come,” said Mark Tillman, president of the board of directors for the LHS Foundation, which led fundraising efforts for the stadium.

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Disputes arise from cemetery expansion

State Department of Defense plans to expand the Maui Veterans Cemetery in Makawao brought disputes involving the neighboring Makawao Cemetery and the volunteer organizer of the annual Makawao Fourth of July Parade.

State officials told parade organizer Theresa Thompson that the parade could no longer stage horses and riders in the veterans cemetery parking lot. She was advised to find an alternative site and put in touch with landowner Maui Land & Pineapple Co. for use of property across the street from the cemetery parking lot.

Thompson, however, remained adamant about using the cemetery parking lot for the parade. Moving the staging area to a muddy, uneven, fallow pineapple field would risk injury to horses and lead to mud splatter on the carefully groomed animals.

The parade went forward with horses and riders staging in the cemetery parking lot as has been the practice for decades. Months later, Thompson was charged and pleaded no contest to simple trespassing. A Wailuku District Court judge suspended a $100 fine, which would remain suspended as long as Thompson has no trespass-related offenses for six months.

Officials said they would begin preparing an alternative horse-staging area for the next Independence Day parade.

Meanwhile, officials with the neighboring Makawao Cemetery launched a lawsuit against the veterans cemetery expansion plans. In November, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was found to be noncompliant with federal historic preservation laws.

Work on the expansion project has been suspended and, last month, officials said that the veterans cemetery has about 40 open burial sites. That has raised concerns about the cemetery running out of room for deceased veterans.

Officials with Makawao Cemetery maintain that the state has room to bury veterans on 10 acres of newly acquired property next to the veterans cemetery.