New law spurs petition by Native Hawaiian activists

Published On: May 28 2013 06:28:28 PM HST   Updated On: May 28 2013 08:03:55 PM HST

Led by Walter Ritte, a group of Native Hawaiian activists are demanding the repeal of a new law they claim weakens Hawaii’s legal apparatus to protect historic properties, which includes native Hawaiian burials.

“We're going to try and get a repeal,” Ritte told reporters, after stepping outside the governor’s office. “It might be legal actions (or) whatever it's going to take to protect our historic sites, to protect our cultural heritage and to protect our iwi kupuna and the dignity that they deserve.”

Ritte and his entourage delivered a petition to the governor’s office Tuesday morning, demanding lawmakers take another look at SB 1171, which Gov. Neil Abercrombie quietly signed into law last Tuesday. The bill allows private and public developers to map out Native Hawaiian burials in phases, even as a construction project breaks ground. However, developers must receive prior “phasing” approval from the State Historic Preservation Division under the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Thomas Dye, an archaeologist who worked at the State Historic Preservation Division in the 90s, said the new law creates too much uncertainty about how future construction projects will protect historic properties, especially those built on large tracts of land.

“The review process is something that has to be done upfront, so that planning can proceed in a thoughtful manner,” Dye told reporters. “If you cut that out, there's no hope.”     

On Tuesday, before he was made aware of the petition to repeal SB 1171, the governor defended the bill as a way to bring conformity with federal law, which in some cases allows archeological inventory surveys (AIS) to be done in phases for major construction projects.

“All this does is bring it into line with federal law, which is complete and total, in terms of taking into account the historical necessities and to see to it that we're able to move along in regular order,” said Abercrombie. “The people who are complaining about it either have not bothered to read the law, or have a political agenda.”

Last August, the Hawaii Supreme Court halted construction of Honolulu’s $5.3 billion rail project after justices ruled Hawaii’s historic preservation law doesn’t allow an AIS to be done in phases. The elevated rail line has yet to resume construction, and is experiencing change orders that average $7 million per month.    

Those who stand in opposition to SB 1171 say administrative rules could have been revised to accommodate large transportation projects like rail, while keeping the current historic preservation law intact.

“There should have been a process done through administrative rule making, and that's not changing the law, that's changing how you implement the current law,” said Moses Haia, executive director of the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation. “After the rail decision, the city finished the rest of the AIS in no time at all. The only reason there was a delay was because the city had attempted to do it in a phased way.”  

The controversial bill passed both chambers of the Democrat controlled state Legislature in April, but not by the overwhelming numbers more popular bills experience. In the Senate, the vote was 16-9, with eight of the aye votes coming with reservations. In the House the measure passed 42-9, but 10 of the aye votes also came with reservations.

“So, there's hope for us to try to change some minds in all of this,” said Ritte. “It wasn't a solid ‘yes.’”


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