Where we've been  .  .  .

By David W. Fukumoto  (Kurtistown, Hawaii)
(This is the third in a series of essays to provide information and recommendations
towards shaping the future of Puna to help it prosper and become the finest place to live!)

                Puna has the least expensive land in the State of Hawaii and it attracts different kinds of people. The differences between their primary objectives are what splits our district. A "silent majority"  doesn't get involved and an effective vocal anti-development group has emerged. There's a growing middle group of residents who want to preserve the best of what the Big Island represents but to create enough economic opportunity that our kids don't have to move away!  We don't want Puna to be an economic slum! 

                By helping to educate we will reduce the misinformation and misrepresentation that surround these already complex issues. I invite everyone to explore where I've been with the hope you'll have a better understanding that I want Puna to be the finest place for everyone!


                 In the past, planning was a government function supported by consultants having specific expertise with various degrees of cooperation by the large land owners.  The process was complex and received very little publicity. It may have included some political favoritism.  Often the public first learned about a large major project when it was announced. Hawaii County encouraged public participation in  the Puna Regional Circulation Plan with Townscape Inc. of Honolulu as consultants. There were a total of 14 meetings. 

                Initially between August 26, 2003 and April 8, 2004, three meetings of the Citizens Advisory Group were held.  Eight or nine government, elected officials or consultant were joined by 13 to 15 community volunteers.  This was followed by four major sub-regional meetings in Pahoa, Volcano, Kurtistown-Glenwood-Mt. View, and Keaau-Paradise Park-Ainaloa between May 11-27, 2004. Three more meeting of the Citizen Advisory Group were held with only 9 or 10 community members joining the 5 to 8 government, elected officials or consultant.  A draft report was written by the consultant and made available for review on March 25, 2005.  This was followed by four more major sub-regional meetings. The first three meetings in Hilo, Pahoa, and Volcano were lightly attended with 21-25 signing in. 

                The last meeting in Keaau on April 7, 2005 was a raucous meeting. Anti-development advocates turned out in force with 87 signed in. With tempers flaring, with vicious personal attacks being made against Townscape planner Hillarie Keehne, and with the meeting moving toward going out of control, as a private citizen, I intervened to establish order. The Final Report was issued in November 2005 and I received a bound courtesy copy.   


                Under the circumstances, Townscape and staff planner Hillarie Keehne did an outstanding job. The Final Report of the Puna Regional Circulation Plan is an excellent document that contains a wealth of information. A summary of the minutes of each of the 14 meetings are a part of bound copies of the final report. I was informed that the Community Advisory Group could discuss only roads completely within Puna.  How could this be?  The traffic problem was due to Puna residents driving daily to Hilo for jobs, services and shopping!  When the criteria could not be amended, it was suggested that I and my associates work independently.  We did.

           In December 2004 after the first series of meetings, our first "Conceptual Puna Plan" was published in hard copy and on the Internet and distributed to the mayor, council members, some County departments, the consultant, and the associates who worked on it but did not want their names made public. It proposed three new alternate roads:

1.   PUNA MAKAI ALTERNATE ROAD (PMAR) began at Hilo Pier through Paradise Park to Hawaiian Beaches and could easily be extended as population and need grew. 

2.   MAKAI-MAUKA ALTERNATE ROAD went mauka through Shower Drive in Paradise Park, Orchidland and Hawaiian Acres and ending at the intersection of Kulani and Volcano Hwy 11.

3.  KULANI-UPPER HILO ALTERNATE ROAD  continued to Stainback, and aimed for upper Hilo and Hilo Hospital.

     The concept was generally well received but there was also strong sentiment against going through any of the private substandard subdivisions.                        

                I fielded over 100 phone calls and emails and learned more while enduring some very harsh remarks by those in the subdivisions who strongly disagreed with the conceptual plan.  Many especially in Paradise Park,  Orchidland, and Hawaiian Acres disagreed.  Many in Hawaiian Beaches, Nanawale, and Leilani liked the concept. I especially appreciated the feedback from Hawaiian Acres as they had sent out surveys that supported their position that they did not want any commercial zoning or County roads.  So the Puna Emergency Access Road was extremely controversial! In the March 2005 revision, the Hawaiian Acre section was removed. Later Paradise Park and Orchidland sections were removed except for Shower Drive in Paradise Park and Pohaku and 40th in Orchidland.

       In all,  our Conceptual Puna Plan went through a total of 5 revisions as we tried to gauge the sentiment of the community. Our final effort removed the public roads from the private subdivisions as we felt there was just too much opposition.  If those in favor were not able to influence their association, it was not appropriate to ram through a major road.

        Public funds should only go where there was public consensus. Our recommendation was to stay out of the private subdivisions. 

        The exceptions were Shower Drive in Paradise Park and Pohaku and 40th in Orchidland where we were assured there was community support.  The creation of a second Puna Emergency Access Road (PEAR II) required condemnation of private properties. But we believed there was enough public benefit to justify eminent domain procedures. 


THE FINDINGS OF THE PUNA REGIONAL CIRCULATION PLAN.   In November of 2005, the consultant issued the 7/8" thick ring-bound Final Plan and the Executive Summary had five major findings:

         1.    REDUNDANCY AND EMERGENCY BY-PASS ROADS DO NOT EXIST. This was problematic due to lava and tsunami hazards that could require evacuation. Limited routes and mode choices further congest traffic.  (Our Conceptual Puna Plan directly addressed this major issue.)

        2.    THE DISTRICT HAS THE HIGHEST 5-YEAR TOTAL MOTOR VEHICLE FATALITY RATE OF ALL HAWAII COUNTY DISTRICTS.  (We believe this issue was overstated and our roads are generally safe if posted speed limits are observed. A more careful examination of figure 6.2 in the PRCP reveals that of the 43 deaths, 23 were alcohol-related,  13 had no alcohol, and 7 were due to unknown or not tested causes. With over half of the deaths being alcohol-related, it's hard to attribute the accidents to poor road design. Some were off-road crashes or due to longer emergency medical service response time.  Puna has a known drug problem, but drugs were not even mentioned in the analysis. It is likely that some of the "non-alcohol" deaths were one-car accidents due to speeding. Anti-development forces are claiming that the highways are not safe and are against widening Pahoa Highway 130 to four lanes. Larger capacity is needed to handle the growing traffic volume that moves relatively safely at steady speeds. If all traffic deaths are carefully analyzed, I believe the deaths are not caused during the "rush hours."  If so,  limiting rush hour capacity is counter-productive. It may be more productive to install speed plateaus or textured pavement to reduce the non-rush hour traffic to safer speeds. This is an area where an analytical study can easily determine cause and prevent installing round-abouts and creating confusion in areas that have higher than 25-mph speed limits.) 

         3.  THE DISTRICT IS A RAPIDLY GROWING AREA.  The report flatly states that the region is not equipped with the infrastructure and public services needed to accommodate population growth. 

         4.  EQUAL ACCESS TO TRANSPORTATION IS NOT PROVIDED.  The Puna District is a low-income area where many residents cannot afford a vehicle.  Mass transit, pedestrian, and bicycle facilities were recommended.

         5.  EXISTING LAND USE PATTERN DISTANT RESIDENTS FROM JOBS, SERVICES, AND SCHOOLS.  (We have come to believe that this is the most significant issue that must be addressed.  Current Puna land use policy creates and perpetuates an auto-dependant pattern and increases traffic congestion. It is relatively easy to resolve the traffic problem once the strategies and tactics of the anti-development leaders are exposed.  It is likely that they will increasingly face a backlash from those that they've misled. Designing an efficient transportation corridor that also supports complimentary ancillary features is relatively simple and both the County and State have highly qualified engineers. But our traffic problem really is a reflection of the political mess that to now has  focused on Hilo at the expense of Puna.  Fortunately, the word is getting out and I believe that there will be greater support to address the underlying Puna problems in the future.) 



PUNA REGIONAL CIRCULATION PLAN;  ACTION PLAN.  The consultant made 14 major recommendations that overlapped our three major road recommendations. Their recommendations differs from ours in several areas.

              1.   PUNA MAKAI ALTERNATE ROAD (PMAR).  We recommended beginning at Hilo Pier aiming for 15th in Paradise Park, then turning mauka through Shower Drive to connect to Pahoa Highway. The consultant's recommendation was to start at Hilo Airport rather than Hilo Pier but otherwise had the same basic recommendation.  Neither recommended taking a full-width highway through Paradise Park. We are modifying our original recommendation and developing stronger supporting documentation.

              2.   PUNA EMERGENCY ACCESS ROAD II (PEAR II).  Both recommendations were identical from Pahoa Highway 130 up Pohaku with a turn at 40th in Orchidland with an extension to Volcano Highway 11. Our group probably did the most research and advocacy of this routing. With further study and information, we are now moving away from our original recommendation.

              3.  KULANI-UPPER HILO ALTERNATE ROAD. We recommended from Volcano Highway 11 through Kulani to intersect with Stainback and continuing on to upper Hilo aiming for Hilo Hospital. This routing produced the largest difference in recommendations as the consultant recommended starting at the same point and following Kulani.  But when it hit Stainback, their recommendation was to follow Stainback to Volcano Highway in Panaewa. While we continue to believe our original recommendation is valid, with more information, we will recommend an amended routing. 

                   COMMENTS CONCERNING RAILROAD RIGHT-OF-WAY.  There is continuing confusion regarding what was once used to haul sugar cane from fields in Kapoho to the Puna Sugar Mill in Keaau.  The 12-mile right-of-way was a relatively narrow easement formerly given by seven large property owners specifically to allow a railroad.  When the railroad ceased, the right-of-way was voided.  Anti-development forces are misleading the public that such an easement is valid and have suggested that it be used as an emergency access.  The former railroad right-of-way goes through a large number of Hawaiian Paradise Park parcels that are now privately owned.  It is highly unlikely that the current owners of the land would voluntarily agree to allow the public to freely use a corridor through their property.  If you were a current owner, would you allow it?  To utilize that former right-of-way, it would be necessary to begin eminent domain procedures that would likely fail as there are many more viable alternatives.  "RAILROAD RIGHT-OF-WAY IS AN ANTI-DEVELOPMENT "RED HERRING" SMOKE AND MIRROR DISTRACTION TACTIC!"


               The final report of the Puna Regional Circulation Plan provided additional discussion specifically on the Puna Makai Alternative Road (PMAR) as the need of such a road is the major Puna transportation priority.  The report cited that it was a contentious issue not possible to resolve within the scope of the study and recommended a further "Alignment Alternative Study" to determine the specific route. 

                It cited the Paradise Park opposition of PMAR going through Paradise Park.  However, those beyond Paradise Park seemed to favor and need an alternate route.  The idea of a high-speed freeway going through the private subdivision was very distressing to many whose neighborhood or property would be affected. The plan concludes with a strong recommendation to pursue the PMAR section between Hilo to Paradise Park as a 12-mile long 500' wide corridor. Unresolved issues include 1) whether PMAR should be improved through Paradise Park and if so, the appropriate alignment and design standards,  and 2) creating a new corridor improvement of 40th Avenue and Pohaku (PEAR II) in Orchidland.


                There was a lot of criticism of the Puna Regional Circulation Plan and I did my share to point out weak areas.  But if you consider the modest total cost to Hawaii County,  the final report was an excellent investment as it contains a huge amount of research and documentation.  Unfortunately, many of those who are participating in the Puna Community Development Plan have not studied it. 

                Unfortunately also, the Steering Committee does not seem to appreciate or understand the work that has already been done and are moving in a counter-productive manner. While in theory it was a good to hold a large number of "small group meetings,"  analysis of the meetings show that it clearly did not come close to a Puna demographic representation. The great majority of the meetings were in lower Puna. If you are to believe the summaries, only lower Puna problems are to be addressed. 

                Hawaii County Planning Department does not have sufficient trained staff to conduct such a large number of small group meetings.  It trained volunteers and an analysis of the demographics of the volunteer group would not match the Puna profile.  Whether intentional or not, there will be a natural bias that shows up using this process. The lack of professionalism and bias was amplified when "summaries" were created by anti-development advocates. 

                It is very clear that there is very little value of utilizing the results of the 130 small group meetings except to build a case for those with their own agendas. The data was poorly collected and the data not properly formatted.  No effort was made to factor or balance the results to provide a more accurate representation of all of Puna.  The bias of the small group input dramatically differs from the summaries of the eight sub-regional meetings by Townscape (Memorandum #8 dated May 14, 2004 and #23 dated April 14, 2005).

                This is a parallel situation when computers are improperly used as reflected in the phase: "Garbage in = garbage out!" Public participation in Puna planning can follow a recommended procedure that utilizes a "steering committee".  Individuals can also produce recommendations.  Both "official and unofficial segments go the consultant who with the Hawaii County Planning Department and other agencies will issue a final report. This will go to the County Council and upon approval by the Mayor, it will become a part of the Hawaii County General Plan.


                An extensive amount of information is posted at http://bigislandplan.com/puna.asp

                In the section titled: "Previous Community Planning,"  you find a link to "previous community planning in Puna,"  and in that you'll find copies of a full range of plans and reports including the PUNA REGIONAL CIRCULATION PLAN.


                Although my interest has been primarily in advocating and researching alternate roads, over the course of the intense two-year study, it has become increasingly obvious that roads alone will not cure Puna's ills and depressed economy.  There was a renewed commitment to continue gathering information and substantiating the preliminary data that was the basis for our PRCP recommendations. With greater focus, weak spots have appeared and there will be a significant number of changes in our future recommendations.

***  Return to:  "PUNA AT A CROSSROADS! (Portal or home page)


                The current Puna Community Development Plan is just the latest in a series of planning efforts.  It should build upon the extensive community input that has been made in the past and well  documented in detail in the Puna Regional Circulation Plan.  I encourage everyone to study it carefully as the subject matter presented is far superior to "the summaries of the 130 Puna Community Development Plan small group meetings!"

                Feedback that can lead to positive results are requested.  It's clear that the subdivision associations must be an increasingly larger part of future solutions.  How do we help create harmony and consensus among the owners within a private substandard subdivision?  Should public funds be spent in private subdivisions when there is no clear consensus?  Do you have a better idea?