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Saving Maui

Maui taxpayers are fighting off development by buying land for conservation.


With real estate booming, Mauians have seen some of their most treasured places threatened by sale and development. Soaring prices have made it harder than ever for County government to afford to buy land. That's why a low-profile charter amendment passed by Valley Isle voters in 2002 is coming in handy.

The new law with the long name-the Maui County Open Space, Natural Resource, Cultural Resource and Scenic View Preservation Fund-dedicates 1 percent of County property-tax revenue to buying important pieces of land for the public.

Already the money has helped buy two historic properties long beloved by Maui residents.

By creating the fund, Maui voters led the state and joined a national trend, says Josh Stanbro, of the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. Communities across the country are realizing the importance of establishing special funds for preservation, including Kaua'i County, which has dedicated one-half of 1 percent of property-tax collections to an open-space fund.

Illustration: Edel Rodriguez

"Having money set aside helps communities compete for larger federal grants that usually require matching local funds," he adds. "We're excited that Maui is taking the lead."

Last year, the County released $811,000 from the open-space account and appropriated an additional $1 million for the purchase of 277 acres in central Maui.

The property, known as the Old Waihe'e Dairy, is a jewel that's home to endangered Hawaiian plants and animals, according to Dale Bonar, executive director of the Maui Coastal Land Trust, which bought the land for $4.8 million using the County grants, federal funds and a private fund-raising campaign.

The Waihe'e Dairy also features wetlands, 1.5 miles of pristine coastline, ancient archaeological sites and the last of a sand-dune ecosystem that once sprawled across central Maui.

Minutes from downtown Wailuku, the site is close to school groups and cultural organizations, a convenient retreat from busy modern life. "When you walk down in the middle of it, all you hear is the ocean, the wind and the birds … and this is four miles from the County building," he says.

Another County open-space grant was used this year by the Trust for Public Land to buy 70 acres at Mü'olea Point in Häna.

Frequented by monk seals and home to rare native stream fish and prawns, Mü'olea has an ancient heiau, village and coconut plantation, and was used as a summer home by King David Kaläkaua.

It's also a gathering place for Häna families, who use it for fishing, camping and cultural activities.

"I think the most important thing about the land is it's a place where people pass on traditions," Stanbro says.

The nonprofit used the County grant to leverage $2 million in federal funds and $700,000 from other sources for the purchase, and the agency is currently raising another $300,000 to maintain the property, which will be turned over to the County for preservation.

Both Mü'olea and the Waihe'e Dairy were at imminent risk of being developed or sold to private landowners, so the deals to buy them came just in time-all thanks to the County's 2-year-old fund.

"I think it's working great," Bonar says.

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Honolulu Magazine October 2019
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