University of Hawaiʻi Officials 'Not Pleased' With West Oʻahu Land Transfer Mandate

Jul 12, 2019

Aerial view of UH West Oahu taken in 2013
Credit D Coetzee / CC0 1.0 / Flickr

A dispute is brewing over a parcel of land in West Oʻahu designated as the site of a new state film studio.

State lawmakers in this year's legislative session mandated that the 30 acres of land at the University of Hawaii-West Oʻahu be transferred to the Hawaiʻi Technology Development Corp., which is part of the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Officials at the University of Hawaiʻi are not pleased about the transfer.

The mandate is included in Senate Bill 33 that became law without Gov. David Ige's signature earlier this week. The measure increases the state's annual tax credit cap for film, television and digital media productions from $35 million to $50 million.

But it also requires the land transfer to build the new studio that would be funded by a public-private partnership, and that could replace or supplement the state's Diamond Head studio.

The Senate's Ways and Means Committee amended the measure to include the land transfer mandate. Chair Donovan Dela Cruz said the land for a new studio complex would be key in the creation and retainment of local film jobs in the state.

"If we're going to make that kind of investment, costing us millions of dollars, there has to be a much longer view," said Dela Cruz.

The new law states that UH West Oʻahu shall enter a 60-year no-cost lease agreement with the HTDC by the end of 2021, with a provision for the transfer of the land's title in six years. The 30-acre parcel is adjacent to the intersection of Farrington Highway and Kapolei Golf Course Road.

Kalbert Young, UH's vice president of budget and finance, says the university has been working with DBEDT the past four years to arrange a possible new studio on UH West Oʻahu land.

"But what this bill does is mandate the land should be taken from the university and given to the Hawaiʻi Technology Development Corporation for no compensation," said Young. "And, also, no academic accommodations [were] provided that there should be any synergies with the film studio and our UH West Oʻahu campus."

Young also says the transfer mandate in S.B. 33 conflicts with the intended purpose of the land, which was given to the state and university by the Campbell Estate to create UH West Oʻahu for the benefit of the west side of the island.

"The land was intended to also provide an endowment to sustain the campus, and to grow it operationally," said Young. "So for this bill, and the concept or the approach, to take away land from this campus to another agency, where the university is not compensated, that robs the opportunity for the endowment or the sustainability for the UH West Oʻahu campus."

He said it also creates a situation that creates a use and facility that doesnʻt necessarily tie into the core mission of the university or the campus out.

According to Young's reading of the bill, the increase in the annual film tax credit cap from $35 million to $50 million is dependent on the land transfer. 

State Film Commissioner Donne Dawson told HPR this week that she believes the higher cap is not dependent on the property mandate.

Senator Dela Cruz agreed with Dawson. He said, "one section is not contingent upon the other."

Another issue was raised by the governor when he announced he was not signing the bill, which he said infringes on the university's constitutional autonomy. Ige said he wants to work with the Legislature to address the issue next year.

Young says the university is not concerned with financial compensation, but would instead like an academic partnership with the new film studio -- one that could be arranged with a lease.

If the state needs the land to create a new film studio, Young says UH  is still willing to work further with state officials and lawmakers to resolve issues to make that happen.