By Lisa Kubota
HONOLULU (KGMB/CNN) - A cemetery in Hawaii, where U.S. heroes are buried, is running out of room. Officials are trying to balance the need to expand with concerns of native Hawaiians.
The revered burial site for fallen U.S. service members opened to the public in 1949, but now the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific will run out of room in three years.
"There's plans to put additional 7,000 columbarium niches at this site. This will keep the cemetery open for our veterans, make it available for them for the next 15 years," said Gene Castagnetti with the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
The project calls for a new administration and visitor center building to be built on a parcel outside the cemetery gates. Then the current facility will be torn down and the columbarium for the new niches will be built at the demolition site.
"We're moving ahead up in Washington right now. They're looking towards selection of a contractor," said Castagnetti.
"We wish there was no need for the National Cemetery of the Pacific to expand outside of its present gates, but we understand the need," said Harold Johnston.
Johnston is a former marine. He's also part of the Papakolea Community Development Corporation. His native Hawaiian group has 14 acres of land along the slopes below the sacred site.
"We want to make sure that any Kupuna Iwi or any archaeologically significant items that are found are treated with respect and they have the proper disposition," said Johnston.
The organization is working with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the cemetery on the construction plans.
"They've agreed to let us have a cultural practitioner from our community to participate in their surveys," said Castagnetti.
The initial government estimate for the expansion is $16 million. A ground-breaking on the five-acre lot is expected in January.