Leeward Planning Commission gives OK to airport hotel proposal

  • Plans for the 239,456-square-foot site for the Keahole Hotel & Suites. (Courtesy photos/Special to West Hawaii Today)

  • Hotel room schematics for Keahole Hotel & Suites.

  • Passengers arriving on an interisland flight June 16, 2020, wait for their baggage at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today)

A new land use designation paving the way for a hotel to be built at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport was passed unanimously Thursday by the Leeward Planning Commission and now makes its way to the County Council.

The commission granted approval after hearing from state airport staff, testifiers opposing the plan and a developer who already holds a 35-year lease at the airport and wants to build the Keahole Hotel & Suites.

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The measure creates the category of primary airport that will apply to both Kona and Hilo international airports. It’s defined as a publicly owned airport that has more than 10,000 passenger boardings each calendar year, as defined by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The measure passed the Windward Planning Commission last month.

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.

Commissioners ultimately voted in favor after agreeing their action merely sets a framework in place to bring current activities around the airport into compliance with the law. The hotel itself likely come before the commission for future action.

Commissioner Mike Vitousek said building a hotel would require a special management area permit and an environmental assessment, at minimum.

“All of this will have to be reviewed in the event a hotel will be built,” Vitousek said. “This discussion of the hotel is great but it’s getting way ahead of what we are doing today.”

Still, almost a dozen people submitted written testimony and two spoke at the meeting, raising the alarm about allowing hotels along the Kona coastline.

Janice Palma-Glennie, representing the Surfrider Kona Kai Ea chapter, called the project the “nose under the tent of coastal hotel development.”

“Keeping development mauka of the highway preserves water quality and scenic vistas,” Palma-Glennie said. “We’re discussing the possibility of building a hotel in this area despite not knowing how big it would be or what impact it would have.”

Chauncey Wong Yuen, Hawaii district manager for the state Department of Transportation’s Airports Division, said any hotel built at the airport would be utilitarian, not a resort facility. It would be used to accommodate flight crews requiring sleep between flights, flight cancellations, day trip meeting spaces, travelers with very early flights and emergency and stranded passengers, he said.

Shannon Rudolph, also opposing the hotel, said there are already plenty of hotels nearby.

“People in Kona fought long and hard for this conservation land surrounding this airport,” Rudolph said. “People can drive 10 minutes into town.”

In response to a question, Melvin Mason Jr, president at Keahole Enterprises LLC, which holds the Kona Jet Center trade name, told the commission, “I’m going to be developing this.”

Keahole Enterprises won a 35-year lease for a 239,456-square-foot tract at the southeastern end of the airport, the location tentatively planned for Keahole Hotel & Suites. Keahole Enterprises is paying $126,912 annually for the lease Mason won after approval in late 2016 by the Board of Land and Natural Resources.

Mason described himself as a “real kanaka,” saying his hotel would be superior to one run by foreign investors. His hotel, for example, would be solar-powered with a seawater air conditioning system.

“The proposition to me is very Hawaiian-based,” he said.

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Yuen said he and Mason are longtime friends, but the hotel project will be a competitive project, with the state issuing a request for proposals and evaluating responses.

“It will be there for all entities to bid on,” Yuen said. “Anyone would be able to do this. It is not limited to him.”