DHHL mulls changes to homelands rules

Residents urged the department to lower blood quantum barriers for transferring leases

During a public hearing Monday night, Blossom Feiteira (left), president of the Association of Hawaiians for Homestead Lands, gives her opinion on rule changes proposed by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, alongside Pua Canto, who holds the Maui seat on the Hawaiian Homes Commission. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

WAILUKU — Native Hawaiian beneficiaries on Maui are supporting a rule change that would prevent the sale of empty and undeveloped homestead lots, saying that selling lots allows wealthier families to jump past those who’ve sat on the waiting list for years.

At a public hearing Monday night, residents expressed their thoughts on rule changes proposed by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. But they also urged the department to consider lowering the blood quantum requirements for transferring homestead leases.

Families whose grandchildren are now less than 25 percent Hawaiian fear their descendants will lose their land and homes.

“That’s my thing is worrying about my grandchildren,” Keokea homesteader Robin Newhouse said. “Are they going to be displaced? . . . The economy is crazy right now. I don’t think the jobs here are going to be suitable for them to own their own home.”

Among the department’s proposed changes are: allowing genetic testing as an option in the application process, lowering requirements for agricultural lots, and restricting the sale of vacant lots and undivided interests.

Residents listen to public testimony Monday night at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Maui District office in Wailuku. The proposed changes include genetic testing, agricultural lots and the sale of vacant lots and undivided interests. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

The department’s website explains that every state agency should update its rules regularly, and that some changes are in response to beneficiary feedback.

Now, vacant lots and undivided interests can be given away or sold to other beneficiaries. However, the rule changes would prevent the sale of these types of lots if the lessee hasn’t put any financial investment into the property.

Blossom Feiteira, president of the Association of Hawaiians for Homestead Lands, agreed with this due to the long waiting list.

“These guys (who purchase) are being allowed to jump the list,” she said. “If the lot is vacant and they have not made any investment, those lots should be surrendered to the department.”

Newhouse said land leases are “a gift for your blood right, and it’s not a gift for you to sell.” Allowing the sale of these lots also splits beneficiaries into “the haves and the have-nots,” said Kimberley Newhouse, Robin Newhouse’s daughter.

Residents also supported genetic testing but were cautious about its use. They believed it would help residents verify their ancestry, but said it shouldn’t be used as a requirement to get a homestead lease.

The genetic testing proposal is a result of a lawsuit. In 2012, Molokai resident Leighton Pang Kee sued the department after it denied his application and would not accept a DNA test proving he was at least 50 percent Hawaiian.

The department settled the suit and proposed rules to use DNA testing to prove ancestry. Under the new rules, genetic testing would be “entirely voluntary.”

The department also is trying to make it easier for families to own agricultural lots. Now, families on agricultural lots are required to create a business plan explaining how they would take their products to market, department spokeswoman Kuuwehi Hiraishi explained Wednesday. With the proposed changes, a business plan would not be required for agricultural lots 3 acres or smaller.

“It’s been difficult for us to provide the technical assistance for those who aren’t familiar with it,” Hiraishi said. The department hopes the change would help get more beneficiaries on land and allow them to do small-scale farming for their families.

However, residents also wanted to see stronger enforcement of current rules.

Kekoa Enomoto, who lives in Waiohuli and farms in Keokea, said there are many lessees in the area who don’t make use of their agricultural lots.

“We’re actually calling for amendment of this rule, but we don’t even enforce the current rule,” Enomoto said. “We’ve got Keokea people that have had those lots for 30 years but  . . . they don’t even live on this island.”

Pua Canto, who holds the Maui seat on the Hawaiian Homes Commission, said the department does not yet have a date for when it would make a decision on the rules. After public hearings, the department will consider public comments, according to its website. The commission will then adopt the final rules and seek approval from the attorney general and governor.

For more information and a copy of the proposed rule changes, visit dhhl.hawaii.gov/dhhlrules/.

Hiraishi said the blood quantum issue is not part of the proposed changes, but it will be part of the department’s legislative proposals package to the Governor’s Office.

“If it makes the cut, it will be proposed for the Legislature (in the next session),” Hiraishi said.

The proposal would lower blood-quantum requirements for successorship from one quarter to 1/32.

Kimberley Newhouse said she hopes this will be the case. Her family was the first lessee in Keokea in 1994. Family members cleaned the lot, built their own home and worked with neighbors to put in a water system. But the next generation — Kimberley’s 7-year-old son and his cousins — are all less than 25 percent Hawaiian.

“I’m 33 years old this year, and my friends are all asking me, ‘What are you going to do? What do you have for your child?’ “ Kimberley said. “And the only thing I can think of is our farm lot. That’s all we have. But really, he cannot have it.”

The thought of having to give up the lot “breaks my heart, because . . . my dad put everything into it,” she said.

Feitiera agreed that once families qualify for the land, they should be able to keep passing it down.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.