Permit granted for Kahoolawe education and outreach center

WAILUKU — A proposed education and outreach center dedicated to Kahoolawe’s history got approval from the Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday.

The commission voted 5-0 to approve a special management area use permit for the center, which would be located on an 8.26-acre site next to the Kihei Boat Ramp.

The project would include a 24,000-square-foot, two-story building that would combine offices, a historical and interactive exhibit about Kahoolawe, meeting spaces, classrooms, a visitor center, gift shop and cafe. The site would include an outdoor performance and gathering area. A Native Hawaiian plant nursery on-site would be replaced with a new nursery.

Mike Naho’opi’i, executive director of the Kaho’olawe Island Reserve Commission, said that the goal of the center is to educate people on the island’s history, provide a point of entry between Kahoolawe and Maui and consolidate operations one-site. The commission currently rents an office and warehouse spaces in Wailuku but launches trips to Kahoolawe out of Kihei.

Naho’opi’i said the center would tell a story of Kahoolawe that goes beyond the bombing and the protests.

“Kahoolawe was about ranching,” he said. “Kahoolawe was about Kalakaua coming to cleanse himself prior to his coronation. It’s about Kanaloa. It’s about Kamohoali’i, the shark god. It’s the stories of migration.”

Since commercial activities are not allowed on Kahoolawe, the center also would provide some income to help KIRC be financially stable, Naho’opi’i said.

Testifier Les Kuloloio, whose family has ties to the area, said he supported the spirit behind the project but was concerned about approving it because there were still unanswered questions.

“The project brings forward an illusionary image of a place that all of you have to approve for something that will set my interests of the past and present it as a museum for education, which I do not represent or want to be presented as a museum here on Maui or Kahoolawe,” he said.

When asked by the commission if he had a suggestion for “a happy medium,” Kuloloio said, “Honestly, no, because this is so fast track.”

Supporters of the center said they thought it was a good use for state lands. Office of Hawaiian Affairs trustee and KIRC commissioner Carmen Hulu Lindsey called it “a very exciting project, particularly for our young people, so they can learn more about this beautiful, vibrant Kahoolawe.” Pukalani resident Tiare Lawrence said there were benefits for the older generation as well.

“A lot of kupuna are unable to go to Kahoolawe, so this provides the venue for kupuna to come and be educated and enjoy the museum,” she said.

Vernon Kalanikau, head of the Aha Moku O Kula Makai Council, said that he liked the educational aspect, though he also encouraged the commission to consider Kuloloio’s testimony.

Naho’opi’i said the commission still needs to go to the state Legislature to get the funding, but that it wanted to get a permit first to show the Legislature that “we’re shovel ready.” The project cost is estimated at $29 million. Construction would start once all permits are approved, with the project’s anticipated completion in 2022.

Plans also call for 72 on-site parking stalls, including 18 grass stalls, three handicapped parking stalls and two bus parking stalls.

The commission approved the Planning Department’s permit conditions but added requirements that the parking lot be designed with “low-impact development concepts” that wouldn’t create runoff. Asphalt and petroleum-based products were excluded. Another condition would require the commission to maintain the coastal trail that crosses the makai area of the property.

There is a modern burial site with gravestones on the property, and Naho’opi’i said the goal is to create a buffer around the site and leave it in place. The project would have to get an archaeological monitoring plan approved before it could get any grading and building permits, staff planner Candace Thackerson said.

Naho’opi’i said the commission would continue to allow volunteers to travel to the island for work trips. It has taken Mainland civic groups in the past but would not take tour groups just to glimpse the island and come back.

He added that the center would help send the message that “if you can restore one of the most environmentally damaged, devastated landscapes in Hawaii, there is hope for the rest of Hawaii.

“That is one of the other stories, that if you can do this here, you can do it anywhere,” he said. “And that people can take that energy and that synergy from what we’re doing, take it back to their home communities and spread it out to everybody else.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at