2012-08-29 23.19.55

How the PLDC was lost

How widespread protests and a dissident legislative faction combined to topple the PLDC – for now.

Last week, both houses of the state legislature voted to repeal the Public Lands Development Corporation. The fall of PLDC illustrates the potency of grassroots organizing, and the way in which the public can give leadership to elected officials.

How did we get to this point?

A new movement has been gathering in Hawaii politics for the past few years. Part environmental movement, part locavore, the movement is a political alliance forged somewhere between Halau Ku Mana and Whole Foods: progressive, rooted, green.

This movement, however, found itself unable to contend with two major issues. The first was the development of ag land in Ewa; the second is Rail. Tom Coffman described it as a war on the environment:

With the construction trade unions providing the muscle, and the development industry providing the money, the Siamese Twins of Rail and the subdividing of Ewa have raced forward, their progress partially obscured by the cover of HART (Rail) and the State Land Use Commission (Ho’opili), each of which is populated by pleasant and intelligent individuals whose livelihoods derive from development, construction and finance.

Within this context rose the PLDC – ambiguous, inchoate, and blessed with supralegal powers to develop public lands. Ambiguous, in that it was simply a vehicle, through which development projects could be accomplished – food sterilization plants, refurbished schools, honey farms, hotels in conservation zones, renovated boat harbors – those are just some of the possibilities mentioned by proponents and opponents of the PLDC.

But it was also inchoate. The PLDC law required a “PLOP” – a Public Lands Optimization Plan, which was never created, nor discussed in any great detail. The PLDC had yet to actually pursue any projects, at least not publicly. And it didn’t have administrative rules in place that would allow it to implement any plans being considered.


PLDC came to the general public consciousness last August, during the process of soliciting input on its administrative rules. Hundreds spoke out at meetings throughout the state, giving the Corporation the kind of public vetting it didn’t receive in the 2011 legislative session, where it passed with a nary a word.

The remarkable public outrage pushed Abercrombie into a defensive posture, leading him to overreact. At the August PLDC rulemaking meeting on Oahu, Guy Chang had three armed officers stationed outside of the Kalanimoku board room, pistols visible, ready for a crowd like they had seen on Kaua‘i.

Abercrombie began to contemplate a change in strategy. State Senator Dela Cruz, the bill’s author, described in an interview with me his frustration with being called into meetings with PLDC staffers. The PLDC issued a strategic plan – without basis in law – to govern the PLDC.

The fall season was overtaken by the election. But by November, Senator Dela Cruz was saying that he would step back from the PLDC, criticizing poor staff implementation of his plan. Local 5, with its broadbased Aikea coalition, kept the PLDC burning as an election issue. And Joe Souki, the speaker emeritus of the State House, had negotiated himself back into leadership on the shoulders of the dissidents, with PLDC repeal as a key issue. And by January, the governor backtracked as well, issuing a statement that opened the door for a veto-safe repeal:

With many others, I believe in the legislative intent of Act 55, which has the potential to support using public lands for public purposes that otherwise will not have sufficient funding.

However, after reviewing the information compiled by the DLNR and suggested rule and regulation proposals, I believe the administrative rules process may not be able to reconcile existing support with opposing views to the extent necessary to satisfy outstanding concerns.

The Hawaii State Legislature may need to adjust Act 55 so that its good intention can be implemented appropriate to the goals of this law.  Public understanding and support are essential. If the Legislature cannot achieve this outcome, the possibility of repeal will ensue. I will take that outcome into consideration but we cannot walk away, should that occur, without a solution that moves us forward.

As always, we will continue to work closely with the Legislature. We need to work together to achieve what is best for Hawaii.

Based on the last week at the ledge, the new leadership has decided that Act 55 can not be ‘adjusted,’ as the Governor had hoped. Repeal is now headed to his desk.

It’s unlikely that last week’s votes to repeal PLDC would have happened if not for the outpour of calls for the same. It’s not to say that the dissident legislators would not have voted for repeal: but the popular revolt against PLDC provided cover for the dissidents to speak honestly.

The core idea of PLDC – that certain development projects should be exempt from planning and environmental laws in order to maximize returns on public and private investments – will not die away with a repeal. Several bills are moving that would preserve parts of the PLDC, or transmogrify the PLDC into a new form. Much can change in the three remaining months of the legislative session. Stay tuned.