Rob Parsons

The Home Stretch

Eleventh-hour efforts are vital to island planning

by Rob Parsons

July 23, 2009

Ask your average Maui resident how the land use and planning process works and you are likely to be greeted with a blank stare, or at best, a confused look.

"The planning process actually works?" would probably be the unspoken response.

Despite bona fide volunteer efforts by citizens dedicating countless hours to review the County's General Plan, Community Plans, and individual project proposals, Maui's unchecked urban sprawl advances year-by-year.

Construction workers rally for more jobs, regardless of the location or aesthetics of a new development. Likewise, a glut of licensed real estate professionals clamors for more inventory, even in a flat market.

The rest of us, visitors included, bemoan the trade-offs to quality of life that accompany unfettered growth. Traffic, crowded beaches, homogenization with the addition of Mainland corporate chains and the loss of our sense of place are among the impacts felt after the temporary prosperity provided with each project build-out.

What, exactly, is the tipping point at which a coveted place to live begins teetering towards being undesirable? Indeed, many of Maui's newest residents are those who relocated here because the places they moved from were becoming "too crazy." Yet there is a paradox built into this paradigm:

To a Maui resident, Honolulu would qualify as being too busy, too crazy, too built-up and built-out. But it must still be desirable, or else why would nearly a million people live there?

Those hoping to capture and keep the nostalgic charm of some "Good Old Days" are likely to wind up as frustrated as one trying to catch lightning in a bottle. Recession or no, progress keeps on slipping, slipping into the future—a future that apparently calls for WalMart, Zippy's, and Krispy Kreme.

Over the past few decades, the planning process has been defined by well-remembered skirmishes over proposed projects: Makena and Wailea 670, North Beach/ Keka'a, Pulelehua, Pu'unoa, Spreckelsville Mauka, Kulamalu and the Barto Project. Each region of the island has waged its own turf battles, seeking to slow growth or maintain the character of their own neighborhoods, with varying degrees of success.

But more often than not, the persistence of landowners and developers wears down resistance to their plans. Promises are given, and concessions made—a bikepath here, some native Hawaiian plant landscaping there—and citizens are left wondering if the whole thing was a slam dunk from the start, the system rigged to favor big money interests.

Ask an average Maui resident the status of the General Plan Advisory Committee review process, and if they know the policies or proposed urban growth boundaries in the plan, and watch them shrug their shoulders. It's not that they don't care, but really, who can keep up with the GPAC's progress over the 3-plus years? Who remembers that the GPAC passed an amendment back in early 2006 that no new large projects be submitted to the Planning Department while their review was underway, only to have the County's legal counsel rule that consideration was not within their power?

While most Valley Isle residents have been doing their best just to stay afloat in the choppy waves of economic downturn, planning consultants have been lobbying hard for inclusion of their pet projects in the Maui Island Plan under review. Most of the proposals, in places ranging from Olowalu to Makena, and from North Kihei to Waikapu, seek to convert agricultural lands to urban uses. 

Focus Maui speaker (in 2007) and author James Howard Kunstler reminded us in his book, The Long Emergency, that Americans invented urban sprawl, that it is dependent upon "the availability of inordinately cheap oil," and that it spread with "the efficiency of cancer."  Yet, despite sponsoring a Smart Growth conference eight years ago in 2001, Mauians havenincorporated a great deal of intelligence into their overall planning since then.

The recently completed Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Plan was a statewide planning effort that vowed it would serve as a living document, and not merely gather dust on a shelf after completion. Yet, many of its nine benchmarks for action don't seem to have gained much traction: develop a more diverse and resilient economy; develop a sustainability ethic; increase production and consumption of local foods and products, particularly agricultural products; preserve and perpetuate our Kanaka Maoli and island cultural values.

Two news reports from last month call into question whether our planning policies are working, and if so, for whom. One story announced developer Jesse Spencer's plans to build 1100 homes on 257 acres of prime agricultural land adjacent to Ma`alaea, while the other article trumpeted Alexander & Baldwin's petition approval for designation of Important Agricultural Lands. 

Spencer, the septuagenarian patriarch of Spencer Homes, Inc., bought the Ma`alaea acreage a year ago for $10.5 million from California developers who acquired it back in 2004 from Wailuku Agribusiness, for $6.6 million. (See: "Presto-Change-o Zoning," 8/14/08.) He said he wants to build more affordable homes, such as his recent Waikapu Gardens project, a 412-unit subdivision laid out in a geometric grid on what once served as an agricultural open space buffer between Wailuku and Waikapu towns.

The land at the breezy foothills of the ridge stretching up towards the twenty wind turbines of Kaheawa Pastures obtained Kihei-Makena Community Plan designation as the Ma`alaea Mauka Project District more than a decade ago. However, it remains agricultural in state land use designation and county zoning, and would require changes for urban use. 

Needing approvals from both the Land Use Commission and County Council, Spencer could choose to "fast-track" his applications through the state's 201 H process, which requires that decision makers give affordable housing projects a thumbs-up or down within 45 days. Watchdog organizations concede the value in addressing low-cost housing in an expeditious manner, but believe the 201 H statute does not fully incorporate valuable input or conditions along with permit approvals.

Would Spencer's proposed Ohana Kai Village project at the Ma`alaea site be truly affordable? A Honolulu Advertiser story from last month said he anticipates that 660 units, or sixty percent, would be priced between 80 and 140 percent of Maui's calculated annual median income. Those houses might be priced roughly from $260,000 to $500,000. The remaining 440 homes, or forty percent of the project, would be sold to those qualifying at 140 to 160 percent of median income, that is, earning $113,100 to $120,640.

But the biggest clamor over building in that area hasn't been over whether true affordability is being offered. It revolves around location. Limited services and infrastructure are available—schools, medical, shops, parks, emergency services, water—and the GPAC also penciled in a prospective alternative transportation corridor as relief for overcrowded highways. For these reasons, and the "prime ag" land classification, former Mayor Alan Arakawa and his Planning Director Mike Foley didn't support the previous owner's bid to develop the property. Current Planning chief Jeff Hunt agrees.

But Hunt and the GPAC are not the final arbiters; that powers lies with the LUC and County Council. Spencer believes most Councilmembers will support Ohana Kai.

"I really feel we will sell out," said Spencer, referring to his proposed houses.

Across the Honoapi`ilani Highway, tall fields of sugar cane stretch across Maui's Central Valley isthmus. A 650-acre triangle owned by the plantation's parent company, A&B Properties, Inc., was also designated as a Project District in the 1998 Kihei-Community plan revision. This was the first step in anticipation of eventually building 2,000 housing units adjacent to Kealia Pond, and across from the Maui Electric diesel generating stations. Though a glimmer in the company's development eye, it is not listed among the current projects portfolio on the A&B Properties website. (That list includes 168 single family units at Haliimaile, Kahului Town Center and `Aina O Kane mixed-use residential commercial projects, 179-acre Maui Business Park Phase II, and four Wailea projects.)

When the LUC approved A&B's Maui petition to designate Important Agricultural Lands (IAL) last month, the 650 acres of prime ag land at Ma`alaea—community plan designated, but not urban zoned—was left off the list. So were tracts of ag land in North Kihei, 800 acres near Waiale Road (abutting Maui Lani, Kuihelani Highway, and Waiko Road) coveted for a new community, and vast acreage close to the Hana Highway, from Spreckelsville through Paia, across Maliko Gulch and into the Haiku region. 

In keeping with new state legislation purported to protect farmlands state wide, a landowner faces more restrictions against developing lands with the IAL designation. But incentives also exist. When selecting 85 percent of lands for IAL designation, landowners can also seek fast-track reclassification for urban uses on the remaining 15 percent. 

Many have suggested that A&B's motive with the money-losing, polluting Hawaiian Commercial & Sugar (HC&S) plantation is to tie up water resources while land-banking lands held in ag designation, and taxed at a rate sometimes less than a dollar per acre. The boon from converting cane fields to urban projects, they say, more than offsets the financial and public relations problems of the sugar industry.

As the GPAC review heads into the home stretch, it could be time to dust off those benchmarks in the Hawaii 2050 Sustainability Plan. How else can we safeguard our shared future?