More than a decade after it was set aside for preservation, a 20-acre site at Palauea could be transformed into a "living classroom" on Hawaiian culture, archaeology and agriculture under a proposal by the University of Hawaii Maui College.
Archaeologists believe the parcel was once part of a major South Maui Hawaiian settlement that contained an important water source, a heiau complex and other ancient sites. The site was designated a cultural preserve as a condition of the 2000 special management area and project district approvals for the One Palauea Bay subdivision, and the developers have long proposed transferring the parcel to the University of Hawaii.
Now UH-MC officials are gathering public comments on a plan to take over the site, in advance of presenting a formal proposal to the UH Board of Regents for approval.
A motorist traveling toward Makena on Wailea Alanui Drive passes a parcel of vacant land Monday afternoon that may eventually come under cultural management by the University of Hawaii Maui College.
The Maui News / AMANDA COWAN photo
"It's ancient," said Kiope Raymond, associate professor of Hawaiian Studies at UH-MC. "It was a very thriving community of Hawaiians, and much of that has been obliterated, unfortunately, over time, with the build-outs of the resort developments."
Brian Moto, special assistant to the chancellor at UH-MC, said Palauea was an exciting project for the college.
"The college views this preserve as an important potential resource for the perpetuation of native Hawaiian culture and education," he said.
The Palauea Cultural Preserve is located on a 20.7-acre site below Wailea Alanui Drive, just past the Fairmont Kea Lani Resort, adjacent to the One Palauea Bay subdivision.
Archaeologist Janet Six said the parcel was once part of a "substantial" fishing village researchers believe was inhabited for more than 1,300 years, with as many as 10,000 residents at one time.
While most of the sites have been destroyed by development, the preserve parcel is important because it includes ancient water sources - wells where Hawaiians knew they could find fresh water floating above brackish during times of drought, Six said.
"The land was special because of the water that was there," she said.
That's likely why the spot became the location of a heiau and "priests' compound," she said. The site also includes fishing shrines and some ancient agricultural sites, she said.
Archaeologists have identified more than 300 sites on the land, including burials which would be stabilized and not disturbed, Raymond said.
While UH-MC would be required to take on certain maintenance responsibilities if the university agreed to accept the property, officials are still developing a plan for how the site would be managed and used by the college.
Officials held a meeting last week to hear from community members, and they plan to hold another meeting in the future, Moto said.
Community members may also submit comments to the chancellor's office, he said.
"We met with members of families with historic ties with the area and are heartened by their support for the college's approach to stewardship," Moto said. "We're looking forward to their continued participation."
No timetable has yet been set for a formal proposal to be delivered to the Board of Regents, and for the board to vote on the plan, he said.
The developers' preservation plan includes a requirement that when homeowners in the One Palauea Bay subdivision sell their property, they set aside half of 1 percent of the proceeds to a fund that would pay for the management of the cultural preserve, Moto noted.
Raymond said he hoped the site could one day be used as a multidisciplinary "living laboratory" for UH-MC Hawaiian Studies, ocean studies, archaeology and agriculture programs.
Six said she hoped the ultimate plan for the site would include clearing the area of invasive species and replanting it with native vegetation that could re-create the ancient dryland forest from the area.
"We could show people we don't need to make Wailea look like Hana to make it beautiful," she said.
Future archaeological activities on the site include no plans for digging or excavation that might disturb ancient burials, she stressed. The site is located atop a'a lava, so the ancient sites and features are already in the open air, not underground.
"We're not digging at Palauea," Six said. "The archaeology is above ground and would consist of mapping. As we clear kiawe, we would be likely to find more sites."
There are indications that ancient Hawaiians grew dryland taro and sweet potato on the site, so the parcel could also be used for teaching traditional agriculture - a counterpart to locations that already exist in other parts of the island that demonstrate wetland taro and agriculture techniques, she said.
"Hawaiians were an island people who knew how to live in dry and wet areas," she said. "This could be a living classroom."
To submit comments on the proposed Palauea Cultural Preserve, write to: Brian Moto; Chancellor's Office; UH-MC; Kupaa Building, Suite 202; 310 W. Kaahumanu Ave.; Kahului 96732.
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.