A small grass lot has stirred up a big controversy for Hawi residents, who are divided on whether the county should purchase it for open space or allow its owners to build an art gallery.
Most of the 16 or so testifiers at a County Council meeting Tuesday favored the purchase of the 0.911-acre lot near the intersection of Akoni Pule Highway and Hawi Road, saying the community has used it as a park for decades.
The council unanimously approved the purchase after conferring with attorneys in closed session and hearing the owners, David and Shelly Lucas of Holualoa, say they’d rather sell it than alienate the small town’s residents.
“We had a beautiful plan to do something beautiful,” said artist Shelly Lucas, describing plans to put an art gallery at the front of the lot and a home at the back. “We purchased the property before we understood the people’s feelings. … For us, it’s a losing situation. We’re going to be known as the people that took the park away.”
Supporters of the purchase say they’ve gathered 600 names on a petition to give the council and the mayor. Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille, sponsoring the resolution authorizing the administration to enter purchase negotiations, emphasized the long-term benefits over a gallery or retail store.
“It’s the only open space in Hawi Center,” Wille said. “It’s an issue between short-term economics and long-term economics. … Do we eliminate that one town square?”
Opponents, however, said the Lucases are being “intimidated” into giving up their dream. They said North Kohala is blessed with other nice parks, and having another art gallery is in perfect sync with how visitors view their small town. Some characterized the grassy lot as littered with alcohol bottles and dog feces.
“North Kohala is very fortunate to have some of the finest facilities for a community our size on the island,” said 25-year resident David Eichner. “Let’s not provide just another place for dogs to poop.”
The property, last assessed by the county at $515,900, was last purchased for $450,000 in May 2013, according to county property records. The county’s purchase price would be determined by a third party appraisal, county Property Manager Ken Van Bergen told Stephens Media Hawaii earlier this year.
The Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission lists the property as No. 8 of 15 on its prioritized list of lands to acquire for public use. It’s known as “Banyan Trees” park, although the banyan trees are actually on the lot adjoining.
North Kona Councilwoman Karen Eoff praised the property’s owners for their attitude.
“I understand the dilemma,” Eoff said. “It’s very refreshing to have this … sensitivity to the community.”
The Lucases emphasized the county mustn’t delay the deal. They had sold their farm to buy the new property and have been losing money renting both a home and a commercial site for their gallery, they said.
“Our whole life has been on hold,” said David Lucas, adding, “Sometimes it’s better for everybody to enjoy something rather than us.”
Wille agreed the county should move quickly.
“There’s a window of opportunity here that we are given for the community,” Wille said.