My Turn: Mahukona belongs to everyone

The coastline at Mahukona in North Kohala has been open to all people since the earliest Hawaiian settlement. It is the district’s main ocean recreation area. Yet the county’s draft General Plan wants to give it away to resort development. What? I thought the old plans for a big resort fell through? The zoning granted in the 1990s expired?

Yes, both true, and the North Kohala Community Development Plan (NKCDP) calls for the county to use the 2% Open Space Fund to purchase the 434-acre swath of undeveloped private land, which spans the shore between Mahukona and Kapaa County parks.

ADVERTISING


But there it is, on the General Plan map – a large pink area of proposed resort zoning from the Akoni Pule Highway almost to the shoreline, much more land than asked for or granted by the last, failed resort project. Surrounding the resort designation in yellow are more than 600 acres of what is described as “low density urban” – read: large lots, mega-houses for offshore owners. This is what the County Planning Department is proposing for Mahukona.

Meanwhile, step across the hall to the Mayor’s Office to read his annual report from the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Commission (PONC). This is the county’s priority list for purchase of private land for public use. This same Mahukona land has been listed near the top of PONC’s annual list of important lands for preservation almost every year since the Open Space Fund was started in 2006.

On the current 2018 list, it is priority No. 4, below three other projects that are already in the process of being purchased using Open Space funds. Does that mean Mahukona is next? Or does the PONC deem it to be the most important land on the island to be preserved in open space?

It takes some understanding of island planning history to make sense of this contradiction.

Writers of the first Hawaii County General Plan in the 1960s knew to cluster the resorts of the then budding tourist industry in Hilo and along the “Gold Coast,” as it was then called, between Kailua-Kona and Kawaihae. Even though the Queen Kaahumanu Highway was not open until 1974, planners and politicians wanted to keep the rest of the island in plantation agriculture, rural and free of outside development pressures.

When the sugar plantations, owned by large Honolulu-based corporations, began to fail, the county was pressured to allow some resort possibilities on their rural land, hoping to provide jobs for workers and to keep the companies afloat. That’s when “minor resort” designations began to appear on the General Plan in places far from the resort nodes, places such as Punaluu in Ka’u and Mahukona. But, after getting the resort pink spots on the map, large local companies bailed and sold their land to foreign investors, some of whom had little or no interest in agriculture or rural lifestyle.

In the case of Mahukona, the Japan-based owner proposed a 240-unit hotel with a large tennis facility, and an 18-hole golf course surrounded by 150 one-acre house lots. Community opposition to the taking of its favorite recreational area grew fast. Petitions followed. Lawsuits challenged the county’s misuse of its own planning process. Court appeals dragged on for years until the marketing surveys showed little visitor interest in staying at large hotels miles from population and tour centers. The owner scaled back plans, eliminating the golf course and proposing a minor resort of 50 rooms and upscale subdivision.

Twenty-three years after gaining the county resort zoning on 14.7 acres of its holdings at Mahukona, the owner had still not found a developer to fund the project. Heavily in debt, the company lost ownership of the land in foreclosure to a foreign creditor, who has announced no plans of its own to develop a resort. In October 2016 the then planning director notified the owner that “the zoning is no longer in effect.”

Meanwhile, fighting the resort zoning at Mahukona and another proposed resort further south at Kaiholena, inspired many people in Kohala to continue to work toward the goal of an open coastline by purchasing for open space and public use all of the remaining privately held oceanfront lands between the highway and the ocean.

Since 2010 the five community groups leading the effort have managed to preserved 390 acres of land by raising $20.9 million from seven different sources, including the 2% Open Space Fund and the State Legacy Land Preservation Fund. Another 90 acres will be added to the county’s inventory this year.

The North Kohala Community Development Plan, which is the “grounds up” planning document of the General Plan, was adopted in 2008 after two years of extensive community input and unanimous approval by the local steering committee. The plan includes multiple strategies for preserving the most valuable historic and cultural areas along with places of high scenic, recreational and public access qualities.

“Strategy 1.2: Acquire coastal lands that should be preserved as open space,” it says.

The section and a map specifically identifies Mahukona, Kukuipahu, Kaiholena and Paoo as lands to preserve. The last two have already been acquired by the county.

Several residents of North Kohala have already called on the Planning Department to remove the resort and urban zoning at Mahukona from the General Plan map. More voices are needed.

An opportunity to talk with planners about all aspects of the General Plan draft has been scheduled by the Planning Department from 6-8 p.m. Wednesday at the former Judiciary Building in Kapaau.

ADVERTISING


Comments can also be made by emailing GeneralPlan@hawaiicounty.gov or calling 961-8288. The Draft General Plan 2040 can be obtained at http://www.hiplanningdept.com/general-plan/

Toni Withington is a resident of Hawi.