KAILUA-KONA — A group of residents opposing plans for a 450-unit development next to their neighborhoods is asking a county commission to propose the county buy the property to stop the development and instead preserve the area for the public.
That push, though, came as news to the entity that owns the land, Kona Three LLC, as well as the planning consultant working on the project.
“It’s surprising to see that, especially with no communication to me or the owners,” said planning consultant Zendo Kern, who learned about the effort when contacted by West Hawaii Today.
The area in question is the site of the almost 70-acre Kona Village development, planned as the final phase of the more than 173-acre Kona Vistas project, which started in 1984 and is located mauka of Kuakini Highway.
Kona Village represents the project’s multi-family component, expected to bring with it 80 residential buildings, including two-story buildings with four units each and three-story buildings with six units each.
But the plans for the project haven’t been popular, especially with residents in the nearby subdivisions, some of whom have thrown their support behind a recent effort to nominate the site to the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission, or PONC, so the county can ultimately purchase and preserve the nearly 70-acre parcel.
“We’re not trying to stop development,” said Joel Gimpel, president of the Pualani Estates Community Association. “We’re trying to make sure that development is in the right place at the right time, and that is not the right place and it is not the right time.”
Gimpel was one of a half-dozen people testifying at PONC’s March meeting in support of the county acquiring the parcel, according to that meeting’s minutes. The commission is expected to pick up the matter again at its May 13 meeting in Hilo.
A development of this scale, Gimpel said, would add many more vehicles onto the local roads and only exacerbate what’s already a bad traffic situation.
Following PONC’s March meeting, Gimpel said the homeowners association held its annual meeting, where it considered and “overwhelmingly adopted” a motion to urge the county to acquire the parcel. The motion also assured the association’s willingness to help steward the property.
PONC is tasked with maintaining a list of lands “worthy of preservation.” Properties can be preserved for a variety of reasons, from public outdoor recreation to historic site preservation to protection of natural resources and watersheds.
To those who support the bid to get the county to buy the property, it checks all the boxes. Mark Powell, who submitted the form nominating the property, identified habitat protection, a burial site and watersheds among what makes the parcel significant for preservation. Gimpel also referenced agricultural artifacts at the site, saying the site “needs preservation.”
Powell wrote in the nomination that preservation could allow for recreational trails or paths, giving community residents a place “to observe nature and have an excellent opportunity for exercise.” Powell couldn’t be reached for a comment on this story.
Gimpel said he believes the parcel could be kept as-is with possible guided tours.
As of late February, PONC’s acquisition fund held close to $20 million in unspent funds. While those testifying at the March meeting didn’t assess the value of the property, Gimpel said the county could potentially buy it for much less than what the owner paid for it. Any offer the county considers making, he said, ought to consider that the land “probably cannot be developed for residential purposes at the present time.”
Kern, though, said the area is “actually a perfect parcel” for growth and development. The site is classified as urban at the state level and is situated within the urban expansion area according to the county’s Land Use Pattern Allocation Guide. The parcel is also within the Kona Community Development Plan’s Kona Urban Area and it’s part of the larger Kona Vistas project, so from a land-use planning perspective, Kern said, it ticks the boxes for infill in the region’s urban core.
That’s as opposed to properties typically brought before PONC, he said, which are generally open space areas, particularly along the shoreline.
“To me, it appears very contrary to the intention of the PONC fund,” Kern said.
In PONC’s 2018 annual report to the mayor, nearly all of its top priorities were coastal properties, one exception being the Amy B.H. Greenwell Ethnobotanical Garden in South Kona.
But Gimpel said it’s not a matter of whether a property is more suitable than other properties for acquisition, only whether it meets the criteria, saying it “should be on the list and given an appropriate priority.”
Kern said an archaeological inventory survey and updated survey were completed, and there was only one burial, which will be preserved, at the top of the property. A survey of the area’s flora and fauna, he said, didn’t turn up anything of significance.
And preserving the property as-is, he added, rather than following through with the original intent for the overall project wouldn’t provide for a critical need in the region: workforce housing.
Because Kern and the owners just found out about the effort to get the county to acquire the property, he said, they haven’t had a chance to give it much consideration, but he said the owners have always been open to hearing concerns.
As of now, Kern said the plan is to go with their original intention while considering how to address community concerns about the project, including concerns related to traffic.
A master plan for the Kona Village development references the construction of some connections between Paulehia Street and Kekuanaoa Place and between Hoomama Street and Leilani Street, but access to the subdivision would be via Puapuaanui Street and Lako Street.
Kern previously said they were exploring the idea of a new connection to the highway and on Friday, he said they were “looking at all the various options.”
He said they’ve been holding off submitting the applications to the county Planning Department while they work to address some of the project concerns. He said it’s still too early to say when exactly they will submit their documentation to the department.