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Looking Back on 2012

A year of surprises, controversy, planning and progress in review.

December 27, 2012
Susan Halas - Senior Contributing Writer (wailukusue@gmail.com) , The Maui Weekly

Earlier this month, the media reported that the two words most frequently looked up in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 2012 were "capitalism" and "socialism." The results were not too surprising in a year that spawned Occupy Wall Street with the slogan "We are the 99 percent," alluding to the income divide between the richest 1 percent of Americans and the rest of us. It was a year that endlessly debated the merits of Obamacare (universal health insurance coverage) and capped it with a presidential race that was too close to call--until it wasn't.

Hawai'i in general and Maui in particular saw the choice for President of the United States (POTUS) as a no-brainer. The state and county delivered big-time for local boy Barrack Hussein Obama, who should be winging into his hometown Honolulu for the holidays aboard Air Force One by the time you read this.

YOUNGSTER, OLDSTERS AND WOMEN

Article Photos

Occupy Wall Street propagandist rendition of President Obama during the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Image Credit: Jake “Rainboy” Balakoohi

The 50th state also made some other interesting election-year decisions.

Voting for youth and a "new vision," South Maui sent 23-year-old Mark Kaniela Ing to the state House, and helped send an only slightly older Tulsi Gabbard, 31, to the 2nd Congressional District House seat. She became the first Hindu-American ever elected to the U.S. House and was sworn in with her right hand resting on the Bhagavad Gita.

On the distaff side, Gabbard was not alone. Women loomed large in the Hawai'i 2012 political landscape: Democrat Mazie Hirono won her bid for U.S. Senate by convincingly beating Republican former Maui Mayor and Hawai'i Gov. Linda Lingle. In victory, Hirono became the first Asian-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate. In the 1st Congressional District, Coleen Hanabusa went back for another term representing O'ahu, and here at home Gladys Baisa became the first woman to chair the Maui County Council.

But voters didn't just pick females and youngsters. Looking to the Y chromosome and the other end of the age spectrum, the very same electorate sent Rep. Joe Souki back to his state House seat for a 16th consecutive term. There, Souki, who will be 80 on his next birthday, orchestrated a strange-bedfellows coalition of dissident Democrats and minority Republicans. These House members united to form a "new majority" and named Souki speaker-elect.

The November outcome was made even sweeter for the Valley Isle with Maui's Shan Tsutsui picking up the Senate president post again, and Souki naming Maui's Gil Keith-Agaran as state House majority leader.

CONTROVERSY IN SOUTH MAUI

Pi'ilani Promenade and Maui Outlets

It was a year filled with contentious issues in South Maui. Leading the parade of things that divided the community were the Pi'ilani Promenade and Maui Outlets, the large shopping centers proposed for the mauka side of the Pi'ilani Highway in Kihei.

Opponents appealed to the state Land Use Commission to reopen the docket on the project that had begun in the 1990s as a light industrial subdivision, contending that it had changed so much and without appropriate review as to be a totally different animal.

The LUC agreed to hear the matter--which is now undergoing a protracted quasi-judicial proceeding.

Advocates for the shopping complexes argued that they had received all appropriate entitlements for the projects that would benefit the local economy both in jobs and infrastructure.

Hanging in the balance--while a cast of a dozen or more lawyers debated the fine points--is an estimated $200 million in new construction.

Where there's smoke there's fire

Also ringing alarm bells were protests relating to cane burning by HC&S, with organizers claiming the burning was an antiquated hold-over from the plantation era that endangered the health of residents; while the company asserted it was necessary to retain the economic viability of Maui's largest agricultural employer.

Towers of power

Maui Electric also drew heat with its proposal to "uglify" the landscape by erecting 70-foot electrical transmission poles along the Pi'ilani Highway corridor. The poles, which would add a string of eyesores to a formerly unobstructed ocean view, brought roars of protest. Some attempt to modify the proposal is said to be in the works.

GMO must go

The Kihei-based branch of agri-business giant Monsanto found itself under attack for its role in the production of genetically modified seed corn, with sign-waving protesters lining Pi'ilani Highway. Other anti-GMO forces hosted a forum urging mandatory food safety labeling.

On the other side, proponents backed by the federal government argued that to-date, no convincing evidence of ill effects has been presented. (A highly controversial and very expensive ballot initiative in California, which would have required mandatory labeling of all GMO food products, was defeated.)

PLDC sparks outrage

But perhaps no event in 2012 brought more sustained and vocal protest than the passage of state law 55, setting up the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC). The law, billed as a way to encourage public-private partnerships and help the state make better use of public land assets, gave the new agency sweeping waivers and exemptions from virtually all county zoning, state review and environmental oversight. It also virtually eliminated public input into the decision making process.

After being signed into law by Hawai'i Gov. Neil Abercrombie, the statewide hearings set up to get public reaction drew such outrage, hostility and universal condemnation that repeal of the act looks to be among the first order of business for the upcoming session of the state Legislature.

Pushing other proposals

Though the topic of waivers for the PLDC drew immediate and vigorous pushback, flying under the radar were a whole host of similar measures introduced at the Legislature under a wide range of titles. At least a dozen different legislative proposals sought to give the state and its various agencies exemptions from regulations in the building of roads, airports, harbors and other public works and also to expand so called "partnerships" with private entities which some called "give-aways." While most of these measures died in committee or were defeated, there were enough of them and in a multitude of guises to raise serious questions about maintaining the integrity and transparency of the review process and real doubts about safeguarding public land and property.

Pulehunui

A local incarnation of this slippery slope came up in August, when the state agencies held a hearing on the proposed plans for use of 900 acres of public lands in Pulehunui on both sides of Mokulele Highway. Up for discussion were a variety of proposed uses and similar public-private partnerships.

The meeting in Kihei attracted a parade to the microphone of citizens, who greeted the proposals with barely concealed skepticism. Plans for a new bigger and very expensive prison, homesteads for Hawaiians in the most arid and chemically contaminated acres--to name but two--were greeted with barely printable invective. Others who testified wondered aloud if the meeting itself wasn't just a thinly veiled attempt to legitimize the privatization of public assets.

DID WE AGREE ON ANYTHING?

A big yes for airport expansion

Yes--a big yes for airport expansion and electric vehicles. Not every public meeting drew opposition. Early in the year, a state Department of Transportation hearing to discuss a variety of improvements at the Kahului Airport drew a standing-room-only crowd estimated at 400. Testimony was plentiful, and those who spoke unanimously advocated for the most expensive option--estimated to cost more than $100 million--and opposed any less costly airport modifications, which might temporarily cause an interruption in direct flights from the Mainland. Less noted (but projected to cost an additional $200 million) were plans relocate and consolidate car rental facilities there.

Another yes for electric cars

The year 2012 was the year that the electric vehicle became a reality on Maui. The University of Hawai'i Maui College hosted a well-attended conference on how Maui could benefit from being an early adopter of this technology, and followed up later in the year with free public test drives of electric cars, scooters and bikes. The county and other private businesses continued to expand charging stations around the island, and rental car companies reported that what few electrics they had in the rental pool were proving popular.

ECONOMIC REBOUND BEGINS

Through it all, the Maui economy--sluggish and hard hit by the recession--continued to show signs of improvement. The visitor industry reported better-than-expected results, including increases in occupancy, spending, expansions of air routes, and increases in arrivals from less traditional markets like Australia and Korea.

Construction had a number of unexpected bright spots, with commercial projects leading the way. In September, First Hawaiian bank reported a 350 percent hike in new, private construction building permits for the first quarter of 2012 compared with the same quarter a year ago.

Likewise real estate numbers and projections started to look a little better, foreclosures were fewer, and sales of condos and single-family homes began to look a little better as prices not only stabilized, but began to recover.

On the jobs side, unemployment, which was reported as 6.7 percent in May, was down to 5.5 percent in October.

CENTER STAGE PLANNING

This year, the bulked-up Maui Island Plan took center stage. The final document, almost a decade in the making and consisting of more than 400 pages of new land use policies, was reviewed by the Maui County Council. Notable features of the Island Plan include a multitude of very specific maps, all with new urban growth limit boundaries indicated and no fewer than 12 new land use categories.

In South Maui, plans to build a new Kihei High School inched forward with the approval of a final Environmental Impact Statement. The good news was tempered by the bad news that there was next to nothing in the kitty to actually construct the facility. The consensus was that authorization to spend $160 million in two phases might be a long time in coming, especially in Hawai'i's current cash-strapped environment.

The school issue got top billing in the South Maui state House race between Republican incumbent George Fontaine, and Democratic challenger Kaniela Ing. Many observers thought that Ing's assertion that a Democrat would be more likely to bring home the money for the Maui school was likely a contributing factor to his win.

Other plans that could have a big impact on the future of healthcare on Maui came in an announcement from Maui Memorial Medical Center that it was considering an affiliation with Banner Health of Phoenix, Arizona, a nonprofit operator of 23 acute-care hospitals and healthcare facilities with more than 36,000 employees in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada and Wyoming. MMHC is Maui's only hospital and is presently part of the state-run hospital system.

WEATHER AND WILD THINGS

Whether you call it global climate change or just extreme weather, 2012 was filled with unpredictable events. The Mainland was blasted by Hurricane Sandy, which devastated a wide swath of the East Coast in November. Maui got its share of wet weather with flooding in March, followed by a drought that was severe enough and to trigger a U.S. Department of Agriculture national disaster alert in May.

In October, there was tsunami warning set off by a Canadian earthquake that evacuated low-lying areas and sent residents and visitors scurrying to higher ground.

If the weather took a weird turn, so did the wildlife. Shark bites off Maui beaches made news repeatedly, and even the axis deer, perhaps reacting to the announcement of plans to hunt them down as an invasive species, were videoed leaping into the surf at Wailea.

FUN AND GAMES

The year wasn't all doom and gloom.

In 2012, Halloween returned to Lahaina; Kihei got a monthly Friday street fest (but only after Pa'ia declined to continue their event because of safety and traffic concerns); TED-X (Technology, Education, Design Expo) hosted its first presentation here to a standing-room-only crowd; and the list of festivals, fairs, food and entertainment venues grew by leaps and bounds. Most notable on the foodie front was the hugely popular Maui Ag Fest. The all-day event drew bumper-to-bumper traffic to the Maui Tropical Plantation in April.

DID THE WORLD END?

If you're reading this in our Dec. 27 issue, that means the world did not come to an end on Dec. 21 as widely forecast, and hashed and rehashed on late night talk shows.

So it appears Maui is still in the game for a while longer.

To that end, we at the Maui Weekly wish you a happy and prosperous New Year and remain determined to bring you all the news and views in 2013.

 
 

 

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