In 2011, Governor Abercrombie signed Act 55 creating the Public Land Development Corporation, a quasi-public entity similar to a utility, given the authority to “develop” ceded lands. According to the Governor’s website, the PLDC is:
a state entity whose purpose is to create and facilitate partnerships between state and county agencies, businesses, non-profits, and community groups to improve Hawai‘i’s communities, create jobs and expand public benefit through stewardship and responsible use of land resources. Ultimately, the PLDC seeks to make Hawai‘i’s lands better for Hawai‘i’s people.
The Governor’s website assured voters that the entity would have to pay “a share” of its revenue to OHA, and that it would not be able to sell ceded lands. But this restriction was only initial and tentative. According to the governor’s website:
The initial premise is that title will remain with the respective agency and only the development rights will transfer over to the PLDC; therefore, the PLDC cannot sell the fee title to any of the lands. If the respective title agency transfers the fee title to the PLDC, the PLDC may sell title, subject to the same restrictions as other state agencies.
By couching the restrictions in terms of relations between State agencies, the statement obscures the fundamental issue, which was addressed (though not resolved) by the 2009 OHA v. State of Hawaiʻi case in the SCOTUS – the issue of whether or not the State “owns” the ceded lands, either in fee simple or even by dominium.
DLNR’s website is even more obscure on the topic of the PLDC, focusing on the number of the original bill, and how board members are appointed. The five members represent DLNR, the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism (DBEDT), and the Department of Budget and Finance, and two include political appointments.
One possible “silver lining” to this is that the PLDC has developed a Public Land Optimization Plan (PLOP), which includes an inventory of the ceded lands. Such as inventory has been a glaring deficiency in the management of the ceded lands, as MacKenzie pointed out in 1991, the State has not even kept track of the difference between the government and Crown lands, which are respectively public and private. The Kamakakuokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies at UH Manoa has been taking an inventory for the past decade in lieu of an official state inventory.
The PLDC’s process is an involved one, with 16 steps merely leading to the “announcement of partnership.” In recent hearings on Hawaiʻi and Oʻahu, community feedback was extremely critical of the PLDC’s seeming stealth. Community members felt that the public had not been sufficiently notified of its creation before it began operation. Its activities will need to be carefully monitored to ensure that its stealth does not undermine the frail hold that Hawaiians, and Hawaiʻi’s people have on the “public lands.”