KAILUA-KONA — Two Kona residents pushing back against a proposed five-story, 11-unit condominium on the makai side of Alii Drive had their petitions granted for contested case hearings Thursday by the Leeward Planning Commission.
The commission’s vote came after a morning of testimony from the petitioners, Simmy McMichael and Keawe K.K.K. Alapai, and about a dozen members of the public, all of whom spoke out against building a condominium so close to the popular Banyans surf spot.
“I feel it’s a win, a win-win for the general public,” said McMichael after the hearing. “The public trust needs to be first, not the developer.”
Bill McCowatt, who was representing the landowner at the meeting, said after the hearing that they are willing to sell the parcel to the county through the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission, commonly referred to as “PONC.”
“And we would work with the community to see that done in a timely fashion,” he said.
The question before the commission is whether to give the landowner, Kilohana Makai LLC, a time extension to finish construction of the project. The special management area use permit for the parcel was issued to a former owner in 2007. That owner filed for bankruptcy in the aftermath of the Great Recession.
The current owners bought the parcel out of bankruptcy court in 2012. That same year, the county’s planning director administratively extended the permit for five more years.
The permit allows the development of a five-story, 11-unit residential condominium — which would include a parking area beneath four stories of units — on 14,450 square feet of land immediately to the south of The Banyan Tree on Alii Drive.
But the parcel’s immediate proximity to Holualoa Bay and the popular Banyans surf spot sparked pushback from local residents, including McMichael and Alapai, who petitioned the commission for contested case hearings.
And on Thursday, the two made their case before the commission.
“It is the best surfing spot on the entire island of Hawaii,” said McMichael. “You would not put buildings on Oahu at the Pipeline, Sandy Beach, 20 feet from the shoreline.”
The testimony from McMichael and Alapai was followed by nearly an hour of testimony from members of the public, all of whom spoke out against continued development close to the region’s shoreline.
“It’s only going to get worse if we keep putting more houses and more big developments,” said Tiare Makaio-Houser. “Where are us locals going to go anymore? We’ve got Magic Sands and we’ve got Banyans and Kahaluu. That’s pretty much it.”
Celeste Gaspar, who lives in Washington state but lived behind Banyan Mart from ages 1-21, held back tears as she testified about the meaning the area holds for her, saying the beach is one of the first places she goes when she comes home.
“Sorry, but I can’t believe this is happening. I move away, and I come home, and I can’t believe this,” she said. “It just makes me sad to know that there might be a development on this property.”
And many of those who testified also voiced a desire to see the property become a community space residents can enjoy.
“In general, personally, I would love to see less development along the whole Kona coastline and more community spaces,” Chad Campbell said adding the parcel in question “would be an awesome place for a park for the whole community.”
Cherie Griffore, volunteer coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation’s Big Island chapter, told commissioners they’re in the process of nominating Banyans for acquisition via PONC.
Griffore also read testimony on behalf of professional big wave surfer Shane Dorian, who hosts the annual Keiki Classic surfing contest at Banyans.
“I’m down there every day with my family these days, and now more than ever it is such an important place for local kids who love the ocean to be able to go do something healthy and positive,” read Griffore. “The proposed development tries to fit as many condo units as possible in the small space available and would add to an already very congested Alii Drive.”
After the testimony and more than an hour in executive session, commissioners unanimously voted to grant the petitions from McMichael and Alapai. Both affirmed to commissioners that they wanted a contested case hearing.
Commissioner Nancy Carr Smith was selected to preside over the contested case hearing. No time or date was given for the hearing, and the commission instructed the parties to undertake a required mediation session.
“And we’re anxious to do that with the intervenors and the department,” the applicant’s attorney, Steven Lim, said following the hearing.
McCowatt responded to the public testimony after the meeting, acknowledging the parcel is at a popular surf spot.
He said they’d still like to legally build the units, but he said they’re also willing to sell the parcel through PONC.
“We’re open to the idea, we like the idea, and we’d be happy to work with the applicants and ourselves to accomplish that as one avenue,” he said, “but again in a timely fashion.”
Griffore said the applicant’s openness to that is huge.
“I’m relieved, very relieved,” she said. “Because a lot of the times, we are battling, but they are willing to work with us.”