WAILUKU - The county took a step closer to acquiring nearly 64 acres of open space in Paukukalo on Tuesday, in a purchase many said would preserve a place of cultural and community significance in Central Maui.
The Maui County Council voted unanimously to authorize the purchase and gave initial approval to a bill appropriating $996,000 for the deal. Council members said they agreed the land was important and deserved to be protected for future generations. But several also said they remained concerned that issues with the sale had not been resolved, including the disposition of abandoned buildings on the property.
"While I am very supportive of this acquisition, my disappointment is how it got to this stage," said Council Member Riki Hokama.
Council members heard from a number of residents of the area urging support for the purchase.
"I remember this place as a child, going there with my grandfather. This is the place where he fished," said Pohaku Kahoohanohano.
He said his ancestors "go far back" in the area.
"It's never been developed, ever," he said. "I don't want to see it developed."
The parcel consists of 63.7 acres of oceanfront wetland at Kaehu Bay, between the communities of Waiehu and Paukukalo. Community members said it has long been used for fishing, gathering and cultural activities; contains a number of historic and archaeological sites; and is an important habitat for birds and native species.
The county's Open Space Fund would be tapped for the purchase.
The Trust for Public Land had obtained the right to purchase the property at a foreclosure hearing, and it entered into an agreement to sell it to the county.
But council members questioned why the Trust set a sale price of close to $1 million, when its foreclosure bid for the parcel was only $861,171.
Officials said the additional expenses included salaries, benefits, travel, marketing, conveyance tax and other organizational costs that had been incurred since the Trust began steps to acquire the property in 2008.
Council members also raised concerns that two abandoned structures on the property could contain lead and asbestos, making them costly to remove or clean up in the future.
Council Chairman Danny Mateo said Tuesday that he continued to have concerns about the purchase.
"We're using taxpayers' money," he said. "All questions need to be addressed."
But Council Member Bob Carroll said any problems with the deal were outweighed by the benefit of preserving the land for the community.
"This is the right thing to do, and I'm happy we have the opportunity to do it," he said.
Council Member Joe Pontanilla noted that the purchase will "result in the preservation of one of the last remaining greenbelt parcels along the north shore in Wailuku."
"I believe this is a great day for our community," said Council Member Mike Victorino.
Residents of the Waiehu and Paukukalo communities agreed.
"Let this decision be a legacy for all the future generations that this council in 2012 made a pono decision," said Duke Sevilla, who pledged to help community groups restore and steward the land.
"Do the right thing and buy this land," said Mark Tracy, who called the property "simply irreplaceable."
Daphne Sing said she often reminisces with siblings and cousins about their happy experiences growing up close to the land. She said she's gratified that her grandson recently went to the area with his class and planted a coconut tree.
"We only talk about how nice it was to be able to have that area, and I'd like to be able to see that for my children, my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren," she said.
Ki'i Kahoohanohano got choked up as she talked about her family's long connection to the area.
"The time is now to save Kaehu," she said. "We will fulfill our commitment to care for this place, I promise you that."
* Ilima Loomis can be reached at email@example.com.