Transfer of Former Navy Land in Kalaeloa Falls Through

A sign marks the entrance of Kalaeloa Heritage Park
A sign marks the entrance of Kalaeloa Heritage Park, a relatively undisturbed, 11-acre parcel with over 177 recorded cultural sites, Kapolei, Hawaii, April 5, 2024. (Clayton Baker/U.S. Marine Corps)

A state agency has backed out of a long-anticipated acquisition of land from the Navy at the former Barbers Point Naval Air Station in Kalaeloa.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority recently decided not to accept 213 acres largely due to cost concerns for conservation and environmental cleanup of the property, which includes a pond contaminated by ordnance disposal and two mostly remediated trap and skeet shooting ranges.

HCDA’s move, approved in a unanimous June 5 vote by the agency’s board, scuttles a more than 15-year-old plan by the agency to lease out part of the property for commercial solar farm use that would generate revenue to fund conservation and preservation work on the land that also includes historic and cultural resources.

“We would be accepting a lot of liability if we were to take on such parcels, ” Lindsey Doi Leaverton, HCDA asset manager, told the agency’s board as part of a staff report recommending rejection of the land transfer.

Now the Navy will be challenged to find another caretaker, possibly through a public auction, for the three sites that are part of the former 3, 700-acre base that has been parceled out to various state, city and private entities along with some land retained by the Navy since the base’s 1999 closure.

The three sites rejected by HCDA represent the last pieces of the former base that the Navy has long worked to convey to others, following a finalized deal in recent days with the city acquiring about 400 acres of nearby land that includes shoreline areas, a campground and some cultural sites.

Unwanted land 

The Navy has had a tough time finding anyone to accept ownership of the three parcels over the past 25 years.

At one time the state Department of Land and Natural Resources was expected to take the smaller 58-acre former shooting range site for use as a cultural park while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was envisioned to acquire the neighboring 146-acre former range that is home to the endangered Hawaiian akoko shrub.

After those two transfers were abandoned, HCDA stepped up to take the two former ranges and the pond along with a nearby 77-acre parcel containing many cultural artifacts.

The agency already had been directed by the Legislature to oversee redevelopment of the former military base, which included developing zoning rules and a master plan. But for HCDA to receive land from the Navy, a new federal law was enacted in 2009 and requires that such lands be used for public benefit.

In 2010, HCDA acquired the 77-acre parcel that became Kalaeloa Heritage Park under a lease with a nonprofit organization, and the other three parcels were anticipated to be conveyed “soon ” afterward.

“This is our opportunity to take these lots that nobody else wanted, ” Anthony Ching, then-HCDA executive director, said at the time. “We’re optimistic that good things can happen in this area.”

HCDA’s plan in 2010 was to preserve and protect the akoko under a management plan funded by revenue from leasing other parts of the two former ranges for solar farm development. The agency also committed to care for the anchialine pond known as Ordy Pond frequented by migratory birds including the Hawaiian black-necked stilt.

All three sites also have high potential for buried cultural deposits because the area is known to have been inhabited by Native Hawaiians predating Western contact.

Contamination concerns 

Before HCDA devised its plan, the Navy had removed about 85, 000 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the two ranges as part of $1.4 million in remediation work on the two sites. However, part of the smaller range contains historic or cultural sites that have not been remediated.

Another, more recent development was the Fish and Wildlife Service designating much of the two former range sites as critical habitat for the akoko in 2012. HCDA said the Navy is requiring a conservation and management plan to protect about 233 existing akoko plants and to expand the population to at least 1, 000 plants within five years.

HCDA estimated in 2015 that the akoko conservation work could cost as much as $100, 000 to $300, 000 annually and that this cost would be higher now.

The situation with the pond was also concerning given its somewhat murky history.

The roughly 1.2-acre body of brackish water on a 9-acre parcel is a 10, 000-year-old natural limestone sinkhole that the Navy reported using to dispose of ordnance-related scrap from the late 1960s to the late 1970s, which led to its Ordy Pond name.

In a 2006 public notice, the Navy said the pond was safe for humans, plants and animals after numerous environmental investigations.

However, as part of a nearly $1 million cleanup in 2013 to facilitate the pond’s transfer to HCDA, a contractor for the Navy fished out munitions containing small amounts of explosives along with at least a few hundred other pieces of junk.

Items hauled up from the pond, which is 18 to 19 feet at its deepest point, included two 100-pound sand-filled practice bombs with 1-pound “spotting ” charges, a few MK-24 aircraft flares used to mark submarine locations, several MK-25 marine markers and some empty MK-104 impulse cartridges.

In 2023, Ryan Tam, HCDA planning and development director, told the agency’s board that sediment in the pond is contaminated but that it isn’t an unacceptable risk as long as sediment is not exposed.

“So as long as you don’t disturb it, it’s OK, ” he said, noting that the plan was to fence off the pond.

In HCDA’s June staff report, Ordy Pond is described as having contaminated surface water and sediment. Contaminants listed in the pond include ordnance, munitions, explosives, heavy metals, polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, PCBs, pesticides and other organic compounds.

Craig Nakamoto, HCDA executive director, told agency board members in 2023 during a briefing on the pending land transfer that his view was that potential liabilities outweigh benefits of accepting the three parcels.

During June’s meeting Nakamoto said HCDA isn’t the right steward for such land preservation and conservation. He said a conservation organization would be a better fit.

“We’re not opposed or against the preservation of the akoko … we just don’t think we’re the right agency to do this, ” he said.

Chason Ishii, board chair, agreed. “With endangered plants and potentially contaminated soil, the historic and archaeological situation, HCDA is not the right entity to really manage this area to a high level, ” he said.

Christopher Dunne, a spokesperson for Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command in Washington, D.C., said Navy officials are “evaluating other property transfer mechanisms ” in light of HCDA’s decision. Dunne did not say whether there are any specific possibilities for a willing recipient of the land.

During HCDA’s June meeting, Brandon Gosch, assistant regional engineer with Navy Region Hawaii, described the Base Realignment and Closure program, which began at Barbers Point before the turn of the past century, as “BRAC gone wrong ” with utility infrastructure issues and land transfers that have taken longer than anyone thought.

Despite conditions of the parcels rejected by HCDA, portions of the two range sites have been declared under federal regulations as suitable for residential use. Ordy Pond prohibits recreational use and can be used only for conservation or open space, though HCDA noted in a report that further remediation of the pond could allow at least limited recreational use.


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