Rob Parsons

Presto change-o zoning

Grassroots groups wrestle the status quo and land use in flux

by Rob Parsons

August 14, 2008

Year by year, Maui's political leaders seem to christen a favorite cause celebre-be it traffic, smart growth, water, affordable housing, agricultural zoning or the latest buzzword, sustainability-then proceed to talk circles around the topic. Baby steps are taken, compromises are eked out, and over weeks and months, the community's verve for addressing the topic at hand wanes to boredom at having heard the issue kicked around ad nauseam. In the labyrinthine bureaucracy of county government, seldom are even the most compelling issues solved satisfactorily or quickly.

Such is island politics.

And, year by year, disenchantment with the political status quo gives rise to grassroots community efforts to accomplish what government cannot or will not. In recent years, citizens have rallied to create Maui Tomorrow, the Valley Isle Voters Alliance (VIVA), the Maui Clean Air Coalition, the `Ohana Coalition, Save Honolua Coalition, Save Makena, Maui Unite, Pump Don't Dump and a plethora of community associations. Through such collaborative efforts, many combined voices have come forward to advocate for positive change, while also sometimes throwing a monkey wrench in a land owner's or developer's dreams of big profits.

A couple of these citizens' groups were in the news last week, while a new "green group" had a coming out party. The South Maui Sustainability group hosted a standing-room only crowd at the Kalama Retirement Center's Garden Room-an appropriate locale for featured speakers on growing more local food, as well as incorporating locally renewable power.

One night earlier, members of Save Honolua Coalition, Honolua Advisory Council, the County administration and Maui Land & Pineapple met to announce a compromise forged to address community opposition to proposed development on and around Lipoa Point and Honolua Bay. ML&P proposed to withdraw development plans for 40 luxury homes and a golf course at Lipoa Point, aspiring to set up a Lipoa Land Trust, while designating significant additional acreage for a conservation easement to supplement their Puu Kukui Preserve.

In return, they hoped to gain approval to use 630 residential units at Kapalua, or two-thirds of the overall build out, for short-term vacation rentals, while also allowing a zoning change to accommodate a 60-room "boutique" hotel, and acquiring park credits valued at over $32 million.

"Conceptually, the administration is in support of the proposal," according to Mayor Charmaine Tavares' Public Information Officer, Mahina Martin, in a Maui News article reporting on last week's meeting. That statement must have been disconcerting to many readers, given the stance taken by the County administration to shut down unpermitted transient vacation rentals in residential districts.

It also represents a dramatic shift in the conceptual plans for Kapalua Mauka. When the County Council passed approval for Project District zonng in February, 2006, it stipulated 690 residences with an adjacent golf course and that there be no hotel or rental units. 172 affordable rental units required by the Workforce Housing Ordinance (40 percent of total number of units) were to be developed at another location, possibly ML&P's yet to be approved Pulelehua Village near the West Maui airport at Mahinahina.

To further muddy the waters, many of those affordable units were conceived to be employee housing, with a waiting list taken for reservations, and with employees testifying in favor of approving the Pulelehua development. All this was before last month's sudden layoff of 274 ML&P employees, representing a quarter of their workforce.

Another Project District that could undergo a complete makeover is Ma`alaea Mauka. Originally awarded land use designation in the Kihei-Makena Community Plan revision in 1998, the 260-acre ag parcel was to be developed with up to 1,150 units. The parcel, across the highway from Ma`alaea Harbor, was one of many sold by Wailuku Agribusiness in their disposition of holdings, begun in 2001, as a strategic liquidation of their entire 20,000 acres of former Wailuku Sugar lands.

Ma`alaea Mauka LLC, an investment hui which bought the project site and other ag lands totaling 1,925 acres, described their intentions in a 2006 introductory newsletter. They said that Ma`alaea Mauka is, "envisioned as an open-space 949-unit residential housing development," though they didn't elaborate on where the open space might fit, at a density of 3.65 units per acre. "An environmental impact statement was prepared," the newsletter continues, "without revealing causes for concern."

But the proposal was met with criticism from former Mayor Alan Arakawa, who said they should wait until the General Plan revision is complete, and from the nearby Ma`alaea Community Association, which passed a resolution against the project in November 2006. The project's EIS was finally released in December 2007.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, when a Maui News article announced that developer Jesse Spencer was in the process of buying the 260 acres from Mike Atherton, on of the principle owners of Ma`alaea Properties LLC. Spencer recently finished the Waikapu Gardens 412-unit subdivision, which survived the 201-G state "fast track" process for permitting of affordable housing projects.

Similar efforts to gain County and State approvals over a 45-day time limit failed to gain approvals when the Pu`unoa proposal on Lahaina lands across from Puamana, and the Sterling Kim Waiehu project met with widespread community opposition, despite the urgent need for affordable homes.

Spencer said he'd aim for 60 to 70 percent of "about a thousand" houses to meet the new affordability criteria of the revised 201-H statute, though a master plan hasn't yet been drawn up and the land sale isn't even final. Spencer said he expects the project to be opposed, the Maui News article stated, but expects the County Council to be sympathetic. "I don't see how they can not approve it," he said, "after they approved [Wailea] 670."

But wait a moment, Jesse. Wailea 670 was passed by a slim 5-4 vote after many months of deliberation, only to have the approval halted by a court challenge. Maybe you checked the pulse of some key Council members on this before you made your offer to buy the fallow ag acreage. But, should the fact we're in crisis mode with a lack of affordable housing mean we throw otherwise valid planning criteria out the window?

Yes, the fast tracking of approvals for housing at the Ma`alaea Mauka project site will be lauded by some and opposed by others. In fact, Planning Director Jeff Hunt approved a land-use recommendation map that places the project outside of urban growth boundaries. Hunt's reasons were the project's distance from available infrastructure and the desire to keep a green belt of open space from development already sprawling from Kahului through Wailuku and Maui Lani to Waikapu.

Rob Riebling, a former head of the Ma`alaea Community Association chimed in with another major concern: traffic, the same issue that helped lead to the demise of the Pu`unoa proposal a few years ago. There will likely be debate as well over allocation of fresh water resources, and re-designating ag land for urban uses, when many are calling to grow more of our own food.

It is ironic that Spencer's Wailuku Gardens project was built not far from where the Maui County Smart Growth Conference was held in 2001, at the Grand Waikapu Golf Course Clubhouse, a Frank Lloyd Wright design once commissioned as a home for Marilyn Monroe. While Waikapu Gardens was affordable, it's hard to imagine it being called a model community.

Viewed from the air, or the top floors of the County building, it looks like what it is, tract housing. It's the same kind of housing development that inspired the 1960s folk song that began, "Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky-tacky, little boxes on the hillside?and they all look just the same." In short, other than its views of Haleakala over the neighbors' roofs, Waikapu Gardens is lacking in a sense of place that would distinguish these Maui homes from another subdivision built anywhere on the Mainland.

With groups such as South Maui Sustainability calling to grow local food, contrasted with mass layoffs of ML&P field workers, there will likely be debate over Jesse Spencer's latest plans. The location is also one of the windiest spots on the island, and downwind from a construction materials dump, Maui Electric's diesel boilers and the Monsanto seed corn fields.

Faced with the distressing downturn in the economy, there likely will be many who suggest we build our way out of it, with more housing units to provide real estate inventory, timeshares, capital improvement projects and construction jobs of any kind. But this merely props up the precarious economic house of cards, top heavy with our tourist and real estate/construction dollars, at the expense of local sustainability.

It is likely that the usual paradigm of the rich and powerful landowners and developers influencing our political leaders will continue to fall short of addressing many compelling community needs. Grassroots citizen group efforts will just as likely continue to stir the pot and call for better solutions.

The emergence of the South Maui Sustainability group is especially encouraging, as they are addressing a model of local self-sufficiency on a community basis, without calling for government action or involvement-at least, not yet. Their efforts may well produce a myriad of akamai solutions that many others, even corporate landowners and experienced developers, might be wise to take to heart in these uncertain, changing times.