This statement is submitted in response to the Hawaii Tribune Herald front page story of June 27th claiming that SPACE cut down protected trees and built illegal structures.
I am writing personally, and as the President of Hawaii’s Volcano Circus (HVC), the organization that operates SPACE. Our staff, plus members of our advisory committee, as well as hundreds of local residents that we serve, have all been greatly disturbed by this derogatory article. The Village Green Society (VGS), a 501 c 2 non profit corporation which owns Bellyacres, is a separate legal entity and will issue its own response at a later date.
According to the Tribune Herald article, area residents RJ Hampton and Sativa Sultan admitted that they submitted complaints to the DLNR which prompted a recent investigation and report. RJ continued on with inflammatory comments insinuating that I am personally responsible for all of this. In an ironic travesty of justice and legal process, those accused in the article (myself, SPACE, and VGS) have still not yet received a copy of the June 10th report to date and therefore have no means to respond to the specifics of any allegations or issues. This appears very inappropriate, especially when as recently as June 26th DLNR manager Gordon Heit reported to our legal counsel, Sue Lee Loy of Ted Hong’s office, that he knew nothing about any new violation from DLNR about structures on the state lands.
At SPACE, we were surprised by news of the report because we have been working with the DLNR on leasing the parcel in question since 1997, and we still have a current lease application in process. In my original statement to Tribune Herald reporter Colin Stewart on June 26th, l fully acknowledged the existence of structures on state land but emphatically pointed out that HVC/SPACE has not built any of them, does not own any of them, and has no authority over any of them. I also explained that I am not the land manager for VGS as stated in the article. I am the corporation secretary.
It is crucial in viewing this issue to be aware of the fact that the DLNR made an inspection of these same encroachments in 1997, following a neighbor complaint and they made no request to have any actions taken because HVC began the arduous process of obtaining a lease for the parcel.
?In October 1998, HVC obtained a FONSI (Finding of No Significant Impact) from the DLNR and in December 1998, they issued a draft DLNR Board submittal which was forwarded to Honolulu to be put on their agenda. At this point the Board decided to review their policy for leasing land to non-profits and HVC’s lease application remained pending. HVC had originally planned to build SPACE on the leased land; however, after years with no response from the DLNR Board and with the County DPW requiring construction of a prohibitively expensive county standard road to access the proposed building site, HVC let the application sit while raising funds for the SPACE project.
That application was eventually withdrawn when HVC decided to build SPACE on three acres of land leased from the Village Green Society (the organization that owns Bellyacres). I would like to clarify that the ohia trees used to build SPACE were all harvested from the 10.35 acre TMK owned by VGS. SPACE opened in 2007 and has since received extensive community support, as well as accolades from Governor Abercrombie, Senators Inouye and Akaka, Mayor Kim, Hawaii County Council Chairman Yagong and many others for operating a community facility that has been home to a public charter school, a farmers market, the HICCUP circus, and performance arts classes and performances. As our community services grew, HVC needed more land for additional car parking, additional classrooms, and accommodations for our volunteer staff and instructors.
Our intention described fully in our new 2010 DLNR lease application has been to take over and upgrade the existing structures and encroachments and to bring them into compliance with County and State codes. In 2012, our Final Environmental Assessment was transmitted to the Office of Environmental Quality Control and we have since been awaiting a response from them and/or from the DLNR office in Hilo. In the interim in good faith, a two story house that had been constructed in 1990, mistakenly straddling the border was dismantled, as well as other structures not included in the lease application.
In response to the recent Tribune Herald article, l wrote a letter to the DLNR on June 30th including these facts and requested that they send me any further questions they have so that we can work together to find solutions that work to the benefit of all parties involved. We have not yet received a reply but HVC and SPACE look forward to receiving and reading this report and to working with the DLNR to remedy the situation.
It is my opinion, and the view of many readers of the HTH article, that this unjust campaign to discredit SPACE is entirely the result of a character attack waged on me personally by a very few identifiable individuals. Their reasoning, if their blog comments are to be believed, seems to come from a strong desire to “bring down” Graham Ellis who is portrayed by them as “a corrupt developer, motivated by money and power.”
On a recorded YouTube video from 2013, it was claimed by RJ Hampton that l personally made $50,000 from the SPACE Farmers’ Market that year. The truth is that l have not been a paid employee of SPACE/HVC since August 2007 and, while the market is very lucrative for local cottage industries, SPACE barely breaks even each week due to high overhead. Since 2007, I have been the unpaid, volunteer president of HVC while SPACE has been run by an Executive Director and an advisory committee consisting of acknowledged local community leaders.
Like many Puna grassroots community groups, SPACE has suffered considerably due to the complaint driven process for compliance that dominates our county. While persistent complaints from a handful of SPACE neighbors have severely irritated planning department staff, the constant stress of dealing with irrational, vengeful, and fraudulent complaints has had disastrous impacts on SPACE staff and volunteers. The moratorium on fundraising and performances imposed by the County has led to a financial crisis at HVC/SPACE, resulting in our ED resigning in March 2014 due to lack of funding for her own salary.
Despite years of these complaints made to the County of Hawaii Planning Dept, the Pahoa Police Dept. and the DLNR, HVC/SPACE has never been issued a single citation from the police or the DLNR. Our only violations with the County Planning Dept. have resulted from operating community building activities like the farmers market, public performances, and community events without a permit.
As a long time community development activist, l understand how impossible it is to please 100% of the people 100% of the time. I also understand that the successes we have achieved at SPACE may have spawned envy amongst individuals struggling to manifest projects that reflect their own purpose and passions. This is human nature and is part of the paradigm in which community development occurs.
The challenge for me personally, and for SPACE, is to hold onto our vision and stay true to our mission. The HICCUP youth circus, much loved for over 20 years throughout the whole state, is an an acronym standing for “Hawaii Island Community Circus Unity Project” with the tagline “Uniting Community Through Circus.” When SPACE opened, our advisory board of community leaders rewrote our HVC mission to “creatively promote sustainable community development in Puna Makai.”
We ask everyone who shares our mission to join together and support our community and not to succumb to those seeking to divide and destroy us for their own personal motives.
Mahalo nui loa,
Chairman of Hawaii’s Volcano Circus