More Than a Decade After Condemnation, Hawaii Department of Transportation Still Owns Cherished Homes on Ancient Hawaiian Fish Pond

by Malia Zimmerman 

Just over a decade ago, Tad Hara, 84, lived in his dream home, which was a simple two-story wooden house built over a vibrant ancient Hawaiian fishpond, just steps from the stunning beach in East Oahu’s Niu community.

The home was special in that its living room floor was glass, so from inside, or from his outside porch, he could watch his exotic Koi swirling and swimming with wild mullet, prawns, crabs and other sea and fresh water creatures.

Hara had a state champion Koi, which two years in a row, was deemed the most prized in Hawaii and was valued at $1,500. He had another 150 Koi in his pond. At night, he could turn on a rainbow of lights, and through the glass floor, watch the fish come and greet him.

For 23 years, Hara and his son and two daughters had many happy memories in that magical place. They enjoyed fishing for their dinner at the beach and caring for the flourishing fishpond. To protect the spring and pond, he registered it with the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

But their happiness would not last. In the 1990s when the state Department of Transportation widened Kalanianaole Highway from 4 lanes to 6, the DOT condemned 50 square feet of his property.

That wasn’t a problem, but what alarmed Hara is DOT contractors damaging the fresh water spring that ran via his property from the mountain to the ocean. He warned the project manager several times to be careful but the workers ignored him, laying cement conduits and electrical and cable wires on top of the treasured waterway. His neighbor called him at work one day to tell him that his pond was dry and the fish dead.

Hara fought the state for four years to get the spring restored. In a fierce legal battle, the state refused to meet his requests at every turn; being drained financially, he surrendered his property.

His property value was hit drastically by the loss of the spring and pond. Hara, who was in real estate at the time, says his appraiser valued the home at nearly $1 million, but the DOT gave him about $550,000. After taxes, and $35,000 in lawyer’s fees, the state relocated him to a home that Hara purchased in Aiea Heights. He still lives there today, even though he doesn’t like it. “It’s too cold in Aiea and it’s not the beach,” Hara says.

That was 1998, and nearly a dozen years later, not much has changed, except his former home is giving way to termites and mold.

No one lives on the property except the occasional homeless person who breaks a window to get in and camp inside. Vagrants use the toilet, even without plumbing, leaving behind a stinky mess.

Hara points out that in all those years: “No one said I am sorry we created this problem for you. … These people do not have a heart.”

He hasn’t fished since he lost his home. “You lose something when someone takes away your pride and joy.”

But if state officials took possession of his property rather than restoring the spring to save money, the plan likely backfired.

State records show since 1999, the state Department of Transportation tried multiple times to auction off what the agency now calls the “disposable” Kalanianaole Highway properties. The DOT has been through an extensive preparation process before the planned auctions, including getting estimates of the property value, performing yard maintenance, and interior cleaning.

There also were costs for things like in 2007 when the Department of Land and Natural Resources ordered the DOT to perform an Archeological Inventory Study to check for bones or artifacts.

Throughout this nearly 12-year saga, an estimated 22 government agencies and their divisions and representatives have had at least some involvement with the property.

Those include the DOT Director, DOT Highways Division, DOT Right of Way Division, the Federal Highways Administration, the US Fish and Wildlife agency, NOAA, Board of Land and Natural Resources, the Department of Land and Natural Resources and its sub agencies, the State Historic Preservation Division and the Bureau of Conveyances. Other agencies involved include the state attorney general, state Department of Accounting and General Services, the lieutenant governor’s office, the City’s Board of Water Supply, the state Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and its Regulated Industries Complaints Office and the Contractors License Board. Then there was Office of Hawaiian Affairs, UH-Manoa, UH Center for Hawaiian Studies, UH Facilities Department, and UH General Counsel.

Brennon Morioka, who inherited this situation when he became DOT Director in March 2008, says: “It is not our desire to acquire lands that do not serve a public highway purpose as it does require some level of maintenance. This is the primary reason we would like some resolution soon either to transfer lands with another public agency or to dispose of the property via public auction.”

Hara hopes that soon, the home will be purchased by a caring owner or be taken over by a non-profit that will restore the important Hawaiian fishpond.

“I lived in a paradise and there is no way to replace what I lost. It was a godsend.”

Hara’s home is one of four in that neighborhood that the state still owns and maintains after condemning them during the 1990s highway expansion. State agencies are facing steep budget cuts, public employee unions are fighting layoffs and legislators are debating tax hikes to balance the budget. Especially in challenging economic times like these, divesting the state taxpayers from such properties should be a top priority for the state administration.

Malia Zimmerman is the editor of Hawaii Reporter and has worked for ABC 20/20, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. She conducted this research and investigation for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.

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