As published in KeOla Magazine.

By Hadley Catalano

Debbie Hecht and Land Fund - pgA

Debbie Hecht is not your typical sign-waving activist. For the past eight years, since the Tucson, Arizona transplant relocated to the Big Island, Hecht has become the leading voice on what she considers to be one of the most important issues on the island: saving Hawai`i’s great places.

As a licensed real estate broker in Arizona, specializing in selling land and apartment buildings since 1981, Hecht earned her stripes through her mastery of her profession during her 35 years of field work and by helping to save the 880 acres of pristine desert critical habitat called Sweetwater Nature Preserve, part of Pima County parks. Hecht was president of Tucson Mountains Association, the group who led the preservation effort with the Trust for Public Lands and helped run the campaign for a $215 million bond election.

“When I got to Hawai`i in 2004, I got in touch with the Trust for Public Lands (TPL),” said Hecht, who is currently the District 8 Commissioner on the County of Hawai`i Public Access, Open Spaces, and National Resources Preservation Commission (PONC). “They told me to get in touch with Josh Stanbro. When I met with Josh, I asked if there was anything I could do to help? He asked me if I wanted to run the petition initiative campaign to get the Open Space fund on the ballot.”

With her inherent commitment to the natural beauty and the preservation of open space, Hecht has made it her mission to work with island conservationists to improve the quality of life on Hawai`i Island through information, advocacy and legislation.

Even as a newcomer to the island, Hecht felt that her experience in real estate land sales, land conservation, working with community groups, and a determined attitude made her the ideal candidate to tackle land issue reform. She genuinely embodies and represents a quote from Margaret Mead: “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

“It’s much better to be proactive,” said the avid swimmer, snorkeler and hiker. “My motivation was my love of the outdoors. Hawai`i Island is one of the most beautiful places in the world. We need to save the great places for future generations.”

Shortly after her work with land conservation began, Hecht was knee-deep in running the petition initiative to set aside property taxes to purchase land.

“They wanted to do 1 percent, I said let’s do it at 2 percent,” said the real estate broker for Real Estate Equities. “Sammie Stanbro paid for an opinion poll to be done through TPL and they found that most people were interested in having 2 percent of taxes being set aside for open space.”

Only a year after settling on Hawaiian soil, Hecht was already actively working on its protection. A petition was soon drawn up and the tedious process of collecting signatures began. Through the help of individuals whom Hecht refers to as her “100 Angel List” of volunteers, they collected 9,600 registered voters’ signatures in support of the initiative. However the County disqualified more than 6,000 signatures on technicalities, such as the word “Road” not being included on a street address.

“It was very frustrating. They could still figure out if the signer was a registered voter, but the County disqualified them anyway.”

Voters Approved Land Preservation Fund

The committed activists were not disheartened; they brought the issue up before the county council, who voted to put the 2 Percent Land Fund initiative on the 2006 ballot.

The ordinance received 57 percent of voter support, and it was in effect for two years, bringing in $4 million dollars annually from property taxes. This helped the County of Hawai`i purchase (with the help of matching funds for some purchases from organizations such as NOAA, State Legacy Lands Fund, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, among others) the following properties: Waipi‘o Lookout, both parcels of Kāwā Bay (Ka’ū), Ka‘iholena North (Kohala), Pao’o (Kohala), and Kingman Trust Property (Kona) along Ali’i Drive.

Land Fund Put on the Shelf

However, during the first budget hearing in January of 2009 newly elected Mayor Billy Kenoi suspended the land fund for reasons related to balancing the budget.

“For two budget cycles (2009-2011), taxes were suspended from being deposited into the land fund,” Hecht explained, noting that the land fund lost out on $8 million dollars. “I sat in budget hearings every two weeks for four or five months, testifying, before I started to look into the budget. It turned out that there were 300 funded, but not filled, vacant jobs in the county. Around $14 million was padding the budget. We were wasting so much of citizens’ and council members’ time to write emails and testify at council meetings to keep the 2 percent amount in the budget for land conservation. We knew we needed a charter amendment, because a charter amendment can only be changed by a vote of the people and not the council or Mayor. This assures the people of Hawai`i that 2 percent of our property taxes will be deposited each year for use to obtain matching funds and we won’t have to watchdog the budget.”

Hecht wrote and submitted the amendment to the 2010 Charter Commission. It was then put on the ballot for only 1 percent and excluded some important, key measures, and again 57 percent of the voters approved the inclusion of the land fund. The annual deposits that will help the County acquire the additional properties that PONC has ranked as the top of their 2001-2012 list of recommendations including, among many others: Pohoiki Bay (Puna), Hāpu‘u to Kapanai‘a Cultural Corridor (North Kohala), Kahuku Coastal Property (Ka’ū), Mahukona Banyan’s Beach (Kona), Niuli’i (Kohala), and Maulua Gulch (Hāmākua).

Back on the Ballot Again

“Here we are again,” a repetitious phrase Hecht’s become familiar with, in reference to the newest voter items, two amendments for land conservation on the November 2012 ballot. “Brenda Ford and I wrote up a 2-Percent Charter Amendment and an additional Charter Amendment for Maintenance Funds. Both amendments got through the county council and are on this year’s ballot.”

The new amendment on this year’s ballot, which Hecht is equally excited about, proposes a charter amendment that would establish a Maintenance Fund for properties purchased with 2-Percent Land Fund dollars. The drafting of the amendment by Hecht and Ford asks for a maintenance fund of $500,000, or ½-percent of property taxes, be set aside to maintain the properties purchased by the 2-Percent Land Fund.

“My favorite part of that charter amendment is that the grants can be applied for by community groups that care for the land. There are some great 501(c)(3) organizations that have been doing a remarkable job around the island,” said the activist, who touted Ka`ū non-profit Ka ‘Ohana O Honu‘apo and their executive director Lehua Lopez for the work they’ve put into Whittington Park/Honu‘apo. “They have gotten grants to restore watersheds, they clean up the whole park, totally weeded, cleaned up the bathrooms, they painted and they are working on Kāwā Bay, both pieces obtained by 2-Percent funds.”

The dedication Hecht has put into her conservationism is reflected in her support and “it takes an island” mantra of her fellow conservationists, including groups such as People’s Advocacy Trails Hawai`i (PATH) and Kohala organizations such as Kohala Historic and Cultural Preservation Group, Mālama Na Wahi Pana O Kohala, Maika`i Kamakani ‘O Kohala, and Kamakani ‘O Kohala ‘Ohana.

The new grandmother and outdoor enthusiast who claims hiking as her favorite pastime is especially excited about Ala Kahakai National Historical Trail.

Money to the People

“That’s why the maintenance fund is so important,” she expounds. “These groups can apply for the funding to help with their project, maintain the trails, restore buildings. That’s taking money from the government and giving it to the people who are already on the ground, working hard and loving those places. That’s new and exciting to me. I’m really excited to empower our citizens who love these places.”

She continues on, describing the Ala Kahakai Trail, the 175-mile long Upolu Point to Volcanoes National Park route that the Hawaiians used to traverse the island. The groups that work on the trail could apply for the money and uphold the surrounding properties. This idea has obviously spiraled for the nature enthusiast, who would like to see the obtained lands surrounding the trail become a “brown/blue” trail system, encouraging people to hike, kayak and canoe around the cultural sites, while stimulating the ecotourism industry and creating jobs. The “brown trail,” on the land, would run parallel to the Ala Kahakai, and the “blue trails” would follow the voyaging route of the sea.

“This is the kind of stuff that gets me excited,” Hecht said. “I just really hope that people will vote for these charter amendments so that we save the places that make our island one of the most beautiful places in the world. If we don’t preserve these places, they are at risk of becoming part of big hotel complexes or expensive subdivisions; then residents have less access. I moved to Hawai`i because it is so beautiful. That’s what keeps people here and keeps people coming back here year after year.”

Hecht has found the balance between political and environmental activism, which includes being appointed by Mayor Kenoi in 2011 to the Open Space and Natural Resources Commission seat of PONC. Both forceful in her perseverance for her passion to improve quality of life and governmentally savvy, Hecht has taken her years of experience and applied her professional knowledge for land conservation. Not one to sit idly by, Hecht has worked with the island’s dedicated land conservationists to work towards a common goal fueled by the notion that her granddaughter and future generations will be able to enjoy the natural scenery of the island.

“We’re better and stronger when everyone participates,” she stressed. “People have to go out and vote, spread the word and educate each other on the charter amendments. Things can only be changed by the people at the polls.”

Debbie Hecht is indeed one person making a difference. While the votes matter and the handing out of flyers and talking to council members makes a difference, it’s the small, personal mementos that keep Hecht fighting for her cause. The small stories, like the one of an elderly local man during the time when Hecht was collecting signatures for 2-Percent Land Fund.

“He came up to me and asked, ‘Missy, what is this for?’ and I explained it to him and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve never voted; I’ll sign that’,” explained Hecht about her delight to see that people were moved and motivated by the land conservation effort. “ I asked if he’s a registered voter and he said no and I handed him a voter registration form, and he looked down and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my gosh, he can’t write and he can’t fill this out.’ So I said, ‘Can I fill this out for you?’ And his whole face lit up and shoulders relaxed, and I filled it out for him, showed him how to sign it, sent it in and it was so heartening to see. So exciting, that here’s somebody that had never been engaged in the American voting process and this got him so excited he promised that he was going to vote. To me, that’s exciting to empower people.” ❖

For more information on 2-Percent Land Fund Charter Amendments, Maintenance Fund or Debbie Hecht visit, email or call 808.989.3222.

Contact writer Hadley Catalano:

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