Greening the Valley

Will the trustees of a Hawaii estate sell out to developers?

On the island of Oahu, five miles from downtown Honolulu, is the Moanalua Valley—3,700 acres of mostly undeveloped forest where visitors and locals can hike, picnic, and learn about native culture and wildlife. The region is home to important aboriginal petroglyphs; rare and endangered species of birds, trees, and plants; a turn-of-the-20th-century estate; and the 23-acre Moanalua Gardens, thought to be among Hawaii's first public parks.

This lush tract is part of what was once a nearly $1 billion estate owned by a banking magnate and bureaucrat named Samuel Mills Damon, at one time the Hawaiian islands' fourth-largest landowner. The son of 19th-century missionaries, Damon died fabulously wealthy in 1924. He had set up a trust to maintain his land-holdings, with an important stipulation: Once his last grandchild died, the estate would be dissolved and its assets disposed among 20 beneficiaries. That happened last November, with the passing of 84-year-old Joan Damon Haig in New Jersey. Now, no one quite knows what might become of this pristine landscape, so important to Hawaii's cultural and ecological history.

Over the years, Damon's trustees have sold pieces of the estate—to residential developers in the 1950s and '60s, and to a Massachusetts-based developer in 2003 (the deal involved 224 commercially zoned acres). Still, the estate has historically eschewed intensive development and has made conservation a priority. In the 1970s, it prevented the construction of a freeway that would have cut right through the Moanalua Valley. And in 2003, it sold 116,000 acres it owned on the island of Hawaii to the National Park Service and the Nature Conservancy for $22 million. That deal, the largest conservation land transfer in state history, in effect doubled the size of Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.

"We're very cognizant of the natural, cultural, and recreational uses of the land," said Tim Johns, the Damon estate's chief operating officer. "The trustees' primary obligation is to the beneficiaries, but that doesn't mean we can't do something like we did at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park."

Johns isn't exactly sure when dispersal of the estate will be complete, but he added that the trustees were not in any particular hurry.

If the land were rezoned for development, its price could soar beyond the reach of preservationists, government agencies, and not-for-profits interested in purchasing it. State officials expect the entire tract, zoned as is for "general preservation," to go for $4 million to $5 million.

According to state wildlife manager David Smith, Hawaii is trying to assemble a partnership of several buyers interested in protecting the land's watershed and native forests while still allowing for public recreation. "I don't think it's a matter of being outbid," Smith said. "It's just a matter of getting the resources together in a timely fashion."

Other stakeholders, such as Marilyn Schoenke, executive director of the Moanalua Gardens Foundation, a group dedicated to preserving Hawaii's natural and cultural resources, are also cautiously optimistic. "We do have concerns," she said, "but I am confident the trustees will make the best decision for the land. The community would be very upset if they didn't make a decision that would carry on Mr. Damon's legacy."

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