New ‘primary airport’ classification sought for KOA

  • In this 2018 photo, travelers claim their baggage after arriving at Hilo International Airport from Honolulu. (HOLLYN JOHNSON/Tribune-Herald file)

  • Passengers arrive at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole in this 2017 file photo. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

The state Department of Transportation wants a 150-room hotel and conference center at the Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport and is seeking new zoning for that airport as well as Hilo International Airport for a variety of travel-related uses.

A proposed resolution would create a new use category called “primary airport” that would apply to both of the Big Island’s international airports, within the current general industrial zoning district on public property at those sites. As proposed by Planning Director Michael Yee, a number of facilities would be allowed on those sites upon approval by the planning director.


“Currently, a number of accessory land uses associated with these Primary Airports are not permitted within the General Industrial (MG) zoning district, including but not limited to, retail establishments, automobile rentals, offices, business services, personal services, etc.,” Planning Department staff said in a March 2 recommendation.

“Another reason for this amendment is the County has received a request from the Department of Transportation-Airports Division to allow for conference centers, and for overnight accommodations (hotel) to support airport operations, which includes airport personnel, visitors and stranded passengers, mainly for the Kona International Airport,” the report states.

Under the resolution, which faces County Council approval after clearing the two planning commissions, primary airport is defined as a publicly owned airport that has more than 10,000 passenger boardings each calendar year, as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Standard accessory uses for primary airports include, but are not limited to, retail establishments for shopping including duty-free shops, dining establishments that may be consolidated in food courts, automobile rentals, service businesses, offices, conference centers and hotels. The accessory uses must be located on publicly owned lands and support airport operations, under the resolution.

Jade T. Butay, director of the Department of Transportation, doesn’t think planning director approval should be necessary and he struck it out of the proposal when asked for comments.

Chauncey Wong Yuen, Hawaii district manager for DOT’s Airports Division, noted in a Dec. 17 letter to Yee that the hotel would still be subject to state procurement law, requiring competitive bidding, and subject to approval by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.


“There are numerous accessory uses for a hotel at the airport, including overnighting flight crews, accommodating flight cancellations, day trip meeting spaces, travelers with very early flights, and emergency passengers of all sorts,” Yuen said. “Accommodations in West Hawaii are concentrated in downtown Kailua-Kona (approximately 8 miles south) and Waikoloa Resort (approximately 18 miles north). The goal of the KOA hotel is not to compete directly against these hotels, but to support airport operations.”

The Leeward Planning Commission is scheduled to take up the issue at its meeting Thursday that starts at 9:30 a.m. and can be viewed livestream by visiting at the time of the hearing. Public comment must be submitted in writing to or submitted at the Hilo or Kona Planning Departments up to two days prior to the hearing.

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