A special permit to expand the uses of a historical ranch near Hawi was approved Thursday on a 6-0 vote by the Leeward Planning Commission.
The commission approved the special permit for Lot #1 at Puakea Ranch after hearing from a couple dozen testifiers. Of those, nine supported the project as an economic boon to a hard-hit area and a way to pay for the preservation of a cherished historical site. Six Puakea ranch employees also testified in support. Seven testifiers, mostly neighbors, opposed the permit, citing concerns about about light and noise pollution, traffic and water allocations.
The commission adopted the Planning Department’s recommendation to approve the project, but added a requirement that before new construction commences, the applicant must give both the State Historic Preservation Division and the county Cultural Resources Commission an opportunity to comment on an architectural inventory survey provided by the applicant.
The Planning Department recommendation includes 20 conditions that must be followed and retained the right to revoke the special permit if they’re not.
Applicant Christine Cash, who purchased the 32-acre parcel in the state agriculture district in 2006, plans to expand the property beyond the four plantation-era buildings she previously used as vacation rentals to include seven guest ranch guesthouses housing 38 overnight guests. In addition, she plans to construct a new pavilion and parking lot and cater to events of up to 100 people, with two community events annually of up to 350 people as well as growing crops, horseback riding, equine therapy, cooking, art and yoga classes.
Planning Director Michael Yee, answering testifiers’ concerns and questions from commissioners, said action by the commission should go forward even though the county is currently in litigation with applicant on the project. He said a judge put a stay on the litigation until the planning commission acts.
The county filed suit in 3rd Circuit Court in late 2018, seeking more than $197,500 in back fines, attorneys’ fees and costs, an injunction to prohibit unauthorized activities and the demolition of an open recreational pavilion that was apparently built without a county permit.
Yee said Cash is working to get the property into compliance.
“Throwing the hammer of fines and fees is not always the most successful approach,” Yee said. “If we find a resolution, we will settle that violation in some form or fashion.”
Cash said she’s put a lot of money and effort into getting the property listed on the historic register and she wants to share the history with visitors and the community.
“Who am I preserving it for, if not the community?” Cash said. “Unfortunately, small farms don’t make it in Hawaii without this added tourism mechanism.”
Kapaau resident Carl Neusel was one of the supporters.
“I believe Christie’s vision for Puakea Ranch is the highest and best use of that land,” Neusel said.
Puakea Ranch neighbors in the nine-lot subdivision testifying in opposition Thursday said Cash has been using much more than her property’s allotted share of the 5,550 gallons per day of water coming through the master meter that all properties share. Expansion will only put more strain on the water supply, they said.
Neighbors also said late-night parties with loud music and lights disturb their peace and tranquility and interfere with stargazing.
“The applicant is blatantly operating an illegal hotel. … This is an agriculture, residential area, not a party zone,” said neighbor Sandra Huntley. “This was our retirement dream and the applicant has spent the last decade ruining it.”
Others said Cash received her first notice of violation on the permitting issues in 2008, and she still hasn’t addressed them.
“This applicant clearly violates these procedures,” said neighbor Robert Morrison. “Anything but denial sets a very dangerous precedent for the island of Hawaii.”
Honolulu attorney Doug Chin, representing Cash, said he didn’t understand neighbors’ issues with his client, who he said has been working to restore the ranch, “long before any of the McMansions that have been built in that community.”
“Sure seems like there is a very profound disconnect between what people think is happening and what is going on … drunken hot tub brawls, rock music past 1 a.m.,” Chin said. “(This) pilikia is so hard to listen to.”
(This article has been clarified to cite the number of testifiers on the issue and to correct a quote about highest and best use inaccurately attributed to Cash.)