Commission grants petition for contested case over Alii Drive development

  • Kulani View LLC proposed to construct 50 units on a parcel off Alii Drive. The parcel is outlined with red in this photo illustration using Google Maps. (Chelsea Jensen/West Hawaii Today)

KAILUA-KONA — The Leeward Planning Commission on Thursday granted a petition for standing in a contested case over a 50-unit residential community proposed across from Pahoehoe Beach Park on Alii Drive.

The West Hawaii Surfing Association was granted standing following a couple hours of public testimony, discussion and an executive session with commissioners. The organization is representing Keawe KKK Alapai, who successfully conveyed his lineal connection to the land that Kulani View LLC intends to develop. The association will be represented in the contested case matter by its president, Paula “Simmy” McMichael.

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“I believe that the information that we have submitted along with Mr. Alapai’s testimony clearly indicates that he has a genealogical relationship with the property and he has an interest to protect and preserve the historic properties that are located on the property potentially affected by the development,” said commissioner Michael Vitousek. “I think that is one of the main reasons that we have this ability to do a contested case.”

Commission Chairman Keith Unger agreed to support the motion, but noted he had some difficulty doing that.

“While I support the West Hawaii Surfing Association, and I agree that they have some very passionate concerns along this area — everybody that testified here today for the most part that were not members of the West Hawaii Surfing Association also had passionate concerns — so I do question where the West Hawaii Surfing Association does have an interest, as passionate as it is, that is any different than any members of the public,” Unger said. “However, as Commissioner Vitousek stated, Mr. Alapai’s connection to the land historically does tilt it — for me — to back this motion.”

Along with Unger and Vitousek voting in favor of approving the petition were commissioners Perry Kealoha, Nancy Carr Smith and Faith Yates. The commissioners also voted unanimously 5-0 to hear the contested case themselves rather than assigning it to an outside hearing officer or a single commissioner.

The matter next goes to mediation. If no agreement can be reached, a contested case hearing would be held two to three months later, according to Deputy Corporation Counsel Malia Hall.

“This is wonderful because now we can work together,” said McMichael after the hearing. “The developer, the planning, Keawe and me — we can all work together and that would be the best outcome.”

The project’s proposer, Gregory Valen, an Oahu resident who said he’s owned for 10 years the acreage upon which the development would be built, told commissioners prior to their vote that he didn’t plan to “make a lot of money on this. I’m just looking for the best use of the land to give back to the area.”

Of the 50 units to be constructed, 26 are intended to be affordable housing units with the rest going at market rate. The project is being pursued via the state’s Chapter 201H process, which exempts certain developments from some zoning and development rules and laws if the majority of units are affordable to households with incomes at or below 140 percent of the area median income of $70,100.

“I’m not a developer and I thought this was a very clean deal,” Valen testified, “because this is not TMT, this is not a VRBO, this is not an Airbnb, this is for the residential people on this side of Hawaii Island.”

He noted further he’s invested about $300,000 of his own retirement funds into the project thus far.

“If we go into a legal striation then I’m done. I can’t do anything else,” he said. “It’s going to go away probably because the cost will become so prohibitive.”

After the meeting Valen said “we thought we’re doing good for the community with affordable housing.”

“I’m saddened that that’s probably going to go away,” he added.

The petition was taken up after two agenda items previously scheduled to be heard by the commission during its monthly meeting at the West Hawaii Civic Center were put on “hold.”

Those agenda items were Kulani View LLC’s seeking of a state land use boundary amendment from agricultural to urban for approximately 8 acres mauka and a special management area use permit to develop the community and related amenities, among them a swimming pool, tennis court, and on-site public use parking stalls for Magic Sands.

Planning Director Michael Yee did not make a recommendation to the commission on the matter following a brief presentation since the applicant for Kulani View LLC plans to submit a revised application. The items will heard at a later meeting.

“It’s not withdrawn, it’s on hold until the revision comes in,” Hawaii County Planner Maija Jackson explained to the commissioners. “It’s our understanding from the applicant that they hope to get it to us next week.”

While the matter was not officially taken up during the meeting, public testifiers still provided their input though their testimony was supposed to be reasons for the petition for standing. Eight people took the mic, voicing their concerns and opposition to the project.

Already jammed traffic on Alii Drive was the main concern raised by the testifiers, whether it was simply daily traffic or the fear of a bottleneck as people try to evacuate low-lying areas amid a tsunami warning, as occurred in March 2011. The issue is exacerbated by the nonexistence of the long-planned Alii Parkway, which would aid in evacuation.

“I can’t even imagine if there was a tsunami. If we had 263 parking spaces from that one property, I can’t imagine how that would affect everyone trying to get out,” said Kenneth Lancaster, who lives across Alii Drive from the property. “If there was a tsunami all I want to know is: Who is going to come and dig the bodies out? Because it’s going to be a problem. People are going to die.”

Other concerns noted were the developer was only meeting the minimum requirement for affordable units; the affordable units would be rentals that no longer would be required to be affordable after 20 years; the location of affordable housing; the addition of public parking — paid or not — would increase users of Magics Sands Beach Park; and flooding and runoff, among others.

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The area of the Kulani View LLC’s proposed project is a little over half a mile south of a 14,450-square-foot lot where a developer had proposed a five-story condominium near the Banyans surf spot. McMichael and Alapai were petitioners in that matter.

Last month, the developer behind that proposal agreed to take that plan off the table and work toward making the parcel a public space.

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