BY RICK HAMADA – MOLOKAI, HAWAII – After years of battling a convoluted county permitting process, aging war veterans on the island of Molokai can finally break ground on their long-awaited veterans center.
“We’re looking at six years plus — just to get where we are today,” says Commander Larry Helm, president of the nonprofit group, Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans.
A Vietnam Veteran himself, Helm says it’s disturbing that nearly 50 Molokai veterans have passed away since the project’s inception. “So that’s the part that bothers me … about the treatment toward veterans and the respect that I believe every veteran deserves.”
The group organized officially in 2005. Helm wanted a haven for some 600 Molokai residents who served and have been under fire during World War II, and in Vietnam, Korea, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Molokai Ranch, the largest private landowner on the rural island of just over 7,200 people, gifted property at Kaunakakai Place. State lawmakers allocated $250,000 toward the construction of a 3,000-square-foot center with meeting rooms, counseling services and recreational facilities.
But constant delays in permitting procedures with Maui County officials and their departments have frustrated the Molokai community, culminating in a heated protest earlier this month. An estimated 1,500 people signed a petition in support of the project.
“We’ve run into “Johnny-come-lately stuff” from the county over and over. We put in permits, crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s,” says Helm. “We didn’t want to do any politics … all we want to do is put up the building. But one department held us up.”
Helm says it all came down to a dispute with the Board of Water Supply about an existing four-inch water line.
Board of Water Supply officials say they could not issue a building permit for the proposed project because the structure would not pass fire code without a newly installed eight-inch, 338-foot-long waterline.
“We told them unacceptable. We believe we had adequate water … but if we did that, all the people on the line wouldn’t have to put in money. Water company collects money. Thank you vets.”
According to Helm, the red tape in bureaucracy began mounting in 2007.
“…we went to the planning department, and they said, ‘all you need is a minor small building project permit because your structure is under $112,000.’ So we paid the fee, did all the necessary paperwork. In a period of one year, we approached them many times about the status. This was November 2007. In December 2008, they came back and told us to rezone and do the whole thing all over again.”
In 2009, Helm says police and fire officials signed off on the project. But Board of Water Supply officials continued to deny the permit, claiming the current waterline did not meet minimum county requirements.
Helm said fire officials went on to conduct a total of three flow tests, with the most recent done on July 7 of this year — the veterans’ water system passed.
“The water department said we need 1,250 gallons per minute that is required. The fire department and a Molokai inspector and one of our members was there,” Helm said. “The results came out to 1,630 gallons per minute.”
Hawaii Reporter made three attempts in three days to contact Maui County and the mayor’s office for comment on this story and have not received a response as of this writing.
Helm publicly voiced his outrage on the Rick Hamada Morning Drive Radio Talk Show on AM 830 KHVH Thursday morning, saying his attorneys were preparing to file a complaint against Maui County in Federal Court.
That afternoon, Helm notified Hawaii Reporter that the mayor’s office called him to confirm that Molokai Veterans Caring for Veterans had just been issued a building permit.
Helm says he is thankful for the green light, but remains critical of county procedures and government officials.
“I think what’s been going on … Government has gotten too big, walking on eggshells and making process redundant and costly to taxpayers over and over again, and there’s a lot of politics for whoever’s up to bat, or who wants to be up to bat and playing this game, and then not serving the very people that they’re supposed to serve — the public, which should be No. 1. They work for the public. They forget that. Arrogance just keeps breeding on and on.”
Helm hopes to break ground in mid-August and looks forward to the day the veterans can announce the Grand Opening.
“There are 47 young Molokai residents who served in Afghanistan and Iraq that are coming back and many are here and want to live on this island,” Helm says. “This place is not just for us Vietnam vets or World War II vets. It’s for them and their families at the end of this story.”
Journalist and talk show host Rick Hamada wrote this news report for Hawaii Reporter. Catch his radio talk show Monday through Friday, on KHVH 830 AM from 5 a.m. to 9 a.m.