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Groups, county trying to get the banyan tree lit before Christmas

Annual holiday lighting ceremony had to be postponed Saturday

Organizers of Lahaina’s banyan tree lighting ceremony are hoping it won’t be lights out for the longtime Christmas tradition.

The LahainaTown Action Committee, Lahaina Restoration Foundation and the county Department of Parks and Recreation are working to get the annual ceremony permitted in time for Christmas. The event, which was scheduled to take place last Saturday, had to be postponed after the permit application was submitted too late.

“We didn’t get the permit. I know it was very disappointing to a lot of people,” LAC President Sne Patel said Wednesday. “We are still working with (the county) to figure out how to get it lit.”

This year’s event would be the 22nd annual lighting of the famed banyan tree in Lahaina town, a festive affair that usually involves music, crafts and holiday activities that have in the past included appearances by Santa, a cookie-decorating contest and a “snow zone.” Last year, the Lahainaluna High School band performed, and then-Council Member Elect Tamara Paltin flipped the switch on the thousands of lights strung throughout the tree.

But this year, a day before the event, LAC posted on its Facebook page that it would not be able to hold the lighting, though it said it would continue its annual Christmas wreath hanging along Front Street.

County spokesman Chris Sugidono said Thursday that the application for the lighting was submitted Dec. 4, three days prior to the event. Special event permit applications that are submitted within 30 days of an event are considered too late and aren’t granted, Sugidono said.

“However, the department is working with the community groups to allow for the lights to be hung before Christmas,” Sugidono said.

Patel said that the committee submitted its permit late this year because it wanted to make sure the event “was going to be plausible.”

“The stance with parks has been that no noncultural events could happen there, and so for a year and a half, we haven’t been able to do a lot of our events,” he said.

Patel explained that organizers reached out to the Mayor’s Office to make sure they would have the county’s support. As soon as they got that support, they submitted their application. That’s what “led to a late process,” Patel said.

“But at the same time, there’s been so many new restrictions on usage of that park that hadn’t existed before that we’re facing,” he added. “We just wanted to make sure we were doing things the right way, and to basically see if, at all, we could even have this event.”

For the past 20 years, the committee has been able to hold the event at Banyan Tree Park with vendors, said Tambara Garrick, treasurer of LAC’s board of directors. Last year, they were only allowed to have the band and no vendors. The activities and music mostly took place at nearby Campbell Park.

Sugidono explained that last year, the parks department started to scrutinize the growing commercialization at Banyan Tree Park.

“Under the new administration, the department has committed to aligning the use and purpose of the area with its original intent and executive order by the state,” which was for historical and cultural functions, Sugidono said.

Four cultural events are currently permitted and are held every year at Banyan Tree Park: the Festivals of Aloha, the Emma Farden Sharpe Hula Festival, the Kamehameha Parade and Ho’olaule’a and the Prince Kuhio Day Festival.

“The department encourages organizers for the events to provide cultural and historical benefits to the community with vendors serving as a secondary activity,” Sugidono said.

However, all parties are still working to allow the tree lighting to happen before Christmas. Patel apologized for not getting the word out sooner about the canceled event last Saturday and added that next year, the committee would submit all of its permits “whether we know if they’re going to get approved or not, a year in advance.”

“Over the last 22 years, I think many people . . . have looked forward to it, and I want to make sure it can continue to move forward as an event, and we’re working to do that,” Patel said of the lighting ceremony.

The Lahaina Restoration Foundation did not respond to a request for comment on Thursday afternoon.

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