HILO — One of Mayor Billy Kenoi’s legislative priorities — a county takeover of Hapuna Beach and Mauna Kea State Recreation Areas — is already encountering some resistance in the state Legislature.
The Legislature opened its regular session Wednesday, and its first order of business this week has been hearing from the four county mayors and state agencies about their legislative priorities.
Kenoi thinks the county could take better care of the two parks than the state, and he’s been trying for several years to get the state to transfer them. But opposition from the state Department of Land and Natural Resources has moved over to the Senate along with former DLNR Chairwoman Laura Thielen.
Thielen, a Democrat, is now a state senator, and her position on both the Senate Water and Land Committee and the Ways and Means Committee puts her in a position to be a factor in the decision.
Thielen made her position clear Tuesday, when Kenoi presented his legislative wish list to the Ways and Means Committee. She quizzed Kenoi about Hapuna Beach, asking whether the county planned to oversee all of the 61.8-acre park, or only the public beach area. Court cases have established that the state is in charge of trails and archaeological sites, such as those adjacent to the beach access.
Travel + Leisure Magazine earlier this month named Hapuna the world’s third best beach for families, citing its broad 200-foot-wide white sand beach, paved parking, picnic pavilions and concession stands as especially appealing.
The state recently completed renovations to Hapuna’s parking lot and restrooms. But cabin facilities in both parks have been severely neglected, leading Kenoi to believe the county could better care for them.
“With the proper public investment, these parks can offer extraordinary recreational experiences, and the county is ready and able to assume these responsibilities,” Kenoi said in testimony. “We continue to believe this proposal will increase government efficiency and save taxpayer dollars while allowing more of our residents and visitors to fully enjoy these unique and precious park facilities.”
Thielen, however, pointed out that Hapuna is one of the parks that DLNR plans to charge parking fees for as a way to raise revenue for the department. Entrance or parking fees have already been established for some state parks, such as Akaka Falls, but the fee is waived for residents with valid identification.
“That would be taking all of the revenue-generating capacity from the state,” Thielen told Kenoi. “I still think it would take that potential away. … It’s been a significant part of the park’s budget.”
Kenoi said the state hasn’t yet begun charging admission, and is currently paying the county $400,000 annually for lifeguards at that beach. It could save that money by transferring the park to the county, he said.
DLNR Chairman William Aila told West Hawaii Today on Wednesday that he’s heard from several Big Island lawmakers about Kenoi’s wishes, but he has yet to speak with Kenoi directly. He said the state is moving forward with plans for a parking fee at Hapuna and that could be implemented within a year, bringing in about $200,000 annually.
“We will certainly talk about it,” Aila said. “We’ll do what’s best for both the state and the county.”
The state isn’t the only government entity having trouble keeping up maintenance on its parks.
A 2011 audit estimated the county’s deferred parks maintenance backlog at about $80 million, noting termite damage, asbestos, lead paint and leaking roofs among the problems. Most of the problems precede Kenoi’s tenure, former auditor Colleen Schrandt said in the report.
A county Parks and Recreation spokesman said the department is steadily working on the backlog, in addition to expanding and renovating county facilities.