Tenants await formal notice after DOT triggered Dillingham Airfield pull-out last year

Always Investigating

Always Investigating has learned the state started making moves last year to get out of Dillingham Airfield, but did not let businesses there know of the potential change happening just months from now.

KHON2 broke the news of the lease dispute and this week when we were first to verify and report that the state is planning a quick and early exit from Dillingham. There’s debate about how viable some options are that still could keep the airfield open. Meanwhile businesses and nonprofits at the airfield still await any formal notice about the change and what steps they’re supposed to take next.

Roaring engines, whizzing parachutes, and the occasional “cheehoooo!” from above is the kind of buzz usually going on at Dillingham Airfield.

But in recent weeks businesses started hearing noises about something else.

“There’s a coconut wireless here,” said Frank Hinshaw, owner of Skydive Hawaii, who has operated at Dillingham for decades as a subtenant of the DOT. He says a couple weeks back rumors started circulating that the state Department of Transportation — their landlord — was pulling out by the summer. Always Investigating tracked it down earlier this week, verifying that the state indeed had given notice to the U.S. Army that the DOT planned to vacate by the summer.

“I can’t believe it,” Hinshaw told KHON2 through tears. “But I do believe it. I do believe it. The state, the Army, hasn’t told us any of that and they’ve known for a month.”

Turns out the DOT has known for at least two months they had didn’t want to keep operating Dillingham Airfield. Always Investigating found the DOT told the FAA as early as Dec. 5 that they planned to trigger their 30-day termination rights with the Army, which owns the land. Then on Jan. 6, the DOT wrote the Army giving a June 30 end date. The Army tells me they received that notice Jan. 23.

KHON2 asked tenants if the DOT had told them anything formal. None said they had received any written notice so far.

“I’m concerned that the people that work here have to deal with this. these people put their lives out every day and to have our landlord treat us,” Hinshaw said.

The state has run the place for decades, a series of leases always renewed, but the DOT told the feds their reasons for pulling out years before the latest lease expires include

* lease uncertainty;

* water system issues; and

* a lack of authority over the facility.

“Their arguments just don’t hold up,” Hinshaw said. “They’re just trying to cover up their mismanagement of this airfield. I think the lawsuit from the Oahu Parachute Center accident (a fatal skydiving crash in 2019) has probably got them shaking in their boots.”

The FAA told the DOT in a letter Jan. 24 that they’re obligated to stay at least until 2025, due to about $1.3 million in taxiway extension grants that are still amortizing. But the DOT contends they have to go away to protect grant money, saying in a statement: “To continue the agreement at HDH (Dillingham Airfield) could put HDOTA at risk for loss of additional financial resources and grants in the airports system from the FAA,” according to DOT Deputy Director Ross Higashi.

The FAA told the DOT in writing to try to work it out with the Army, even suggesting solutions such as:

  • A joint use agreement, in which the Army handles the maintenance and the DOT handles the tenants and operations; or
  • A land transfer, wherein the Army deeds the property to the state but keeps access for training and emergency use.

As for a costly well serving the nearby community, the FAA suggests turning that over to the Board of Water Supply.

KHON2 asked, “Are they throwing in the towel too soon when there are all these other viable options on the table?”

“I don’t know that they can throw in the towel,” Hinshaw said. “This doesn’t have to happen.”

We’ve pressed the state and feds on whether both sides will keep trying to work out how to keep Dillingham Airfield operational.

Gov. David Ige has been traveling since the news broke, but his chief of staff Linda Chu Takayama told Always Investigating: “The state does not have much of a choice in this matter, because the terms of the U.S. Army’s lease for Dillingham Airfield are in conflict with FAA rules. However, we continue our discussions with all stakeholders, and aim to find the solution that is best for the state and our community.”

And on Friday, the DOT spokesperson told me “HDOT continues to coordinate with the U.S. Army and the FAA regarding the transfer of the Dillingham Airfield lease and the various options available.”

As for the Army and whether joint-use or land transfer are on the table, their Hawaii spokesperson responded: “As this is a relatively new development, the Army will consider all facts to determine the best way forward. We understand the concerns of the community and businesses operating at Dillingham Airfield, and this is not a matter we are taking lightly. Our staff is diligently working to assess the way forward…. First and foremost, the Army must fulfill its requirements of military training, readiness, response, security and safety.”

The Army has said in the past that they are not in the position to be a longterm commercial landlord. We asked if they are open to a short-term direct-tenancy agreement with the subtenants past June 30 if the state is unwilling to modify or delay their June 30 date to vacate.

The Army responded: “No. Outside use of military facilities must meet strict requirements which have a long application and approval process. The Army’s primary mission is soldier readiness–to deploy, fight and win our Nation’s wars; as such the Army cannot provide the direct oversight which would be required for a direct tenancy agreement and cannot accept the liabilities of such an agreement.”

The Army did confirm earlier this week that they have stood willing to go to bat with the Secretary of the Army for a waiver to give the state a decades-long lease term like they used to have, before a 5-year-max was imposed nationwide a few lease-rounds back.

The Army says if and when the state does leave, “The requirements are established in the lease, and include such things as vacating the premises, removing their property, and restoring the premises to its original condition.”

That means clearing out for the longtime tenants, too.

“I presume they would want us to remove everything by June 30th,” Hinshaw said, “Have all your airplanes, have all your equipment, your buildings gone. Thank you.”

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