At the November 29 meeting in Hau‘ula of the Honolulu City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Planning, Hawai‘i Reserves, Inc. (HRI), the local land management arm of the Mormon church, unveiled a new, drastically downsized housing plan to relieve at least some of the rampant overcrowding in La‘ie. Whether it will — if ever built out — actually achieve that goal remains to be seen.
Gone is the proposed workforce housing, which was part of the original Envision La‘ie plan floated by HRI several years ago and incorporated by the Department of Planning and Permitting into its draft of the Ko‘olau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan (KLSCP) update. Instead of adding hundreds of affordable units, HRI manager Eric Beaver estimated that fewer than 100 would be built under the new plan, that is if the city’s affordable housing ordinances remained unchanged.
Most of the 300 proposed new units would be sold at market rates and all of them would be built in La‘ie, he said.
Beaver testified that the new plan was meant to be a compromise to address concerns raised by the community — about increased traffic, a lack of infrastructure, and the loss of agricultural land and open space — ever since the DPP released its version of the KLSCP in 2012.
The Envision La‘ie plan included at least 875 new housing units on 300 acres of ranch land in Malaekahana, as well as a new school and commercial development.
Seeking to address the concerns raised, Beaver said HRI met with city council members and their staff, as well as community leaders Dee Dee Letts, Tim Vanderveer, and Ben Schafer, who toured La‘ie with him to explore possible housing alternatives, including increased density.
HRI currently has the ability under the current KLSCP (approved in 1999) to build 550 units behind the Brigham Young University-Hawai‘i campus. However, Beaver said the company would rather not pursue that option. Instead, HRI proposes to build 250 units on land in north La‘ie directly adjacent to Malaekahana. The remaining 50 units would be built on the sprawling BYUH campus.
The north La‘ie houses would be set back more than 300 yards off Kamehameha Highway and be partly tucked behind ridges to protect viewplanes, he said.
No retail is being proposed, and “at this smaller number of units, the workforce leasehold housing … is not feasible,” he added.
Given that some of the lands HRI wants to develop fall outside of the community growth boundary in the current KLSCP, as well as the version proposed last January by council member Ikaika Anderson in Bill 1, Beaver said he opposed the bill’s adoption. Bill 1 does not designate any more lands for housing, which is “our community’s greatest need,” he said.
Should the bill be amended to accommodate HRI’s new proposal, Beaver estimated that under existing laws, 30 percent of the 300 units would need to be affordable.
“Ninety units, potentially, and 210 would be market?” Martin asked.
“The goal would be to maximize the number of affordable units. Whatever is possible is what we would work to do,” Beaver replied.
“And the affordable units would be marketed to those earning 140 percent of the median income or less,” Anderson asked.
“That’s my understanding,” Beaver replied.
During public testimony, most attendees urged the council members to go ahead and approve Bill 1 unamended, regardless of HRI’s attempt at a compromise. Several of them argued that the city could free up more housing if it cracked down on the rampant illegal vacation rentals throughout the region.
Hau‘ula resident Maureen Malanaphy pointed out that the lack of adequate housing is an island-wide issue. One solution would be to reduce the glut of vacation rentals, she said, adding that she sees a lot of tourists, as well as BYU students, in her neighborhood these days.
More development was not the answer, she suggested. “I don’t want to look around … like Kailua and the North Shore and say, ‘What happened? What happened?’ Because once it’s gone, it’s gone,” Malanaphy said.
BYU teacher Rebecca Walker, also a Hau‘ula resident, echoed her sentiments.
“I don’t think we have the right solution for what the real problem is — over 1,000 illegal vacation rentals in Ko‘olau Loa. And that’s only those on Airbnb,” she said. And given that so many homes are being rented to tourists, she asked, “How do we guarantee our friends [who have left the area, but want to return] that they’re going to be guaranteed these homes? Ninety of 300 homes would be affordable,” she said of HRI’s new plan.
“We have to clean our house first before we can move forward,” she said.
Some of those opposed to HRI’s development proposals at the meeting were actually Mormon church members. Christopher Milsteen of La‘ie identified himself as an LDS [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] member and offered his support for Bill 1.
“I’ve seen what the church has done in Utah with development projects and I don’t want to see that here. I want to see the natural places preserved. I want to see a true compromise from HRI. I don’t think this is a true Christian compromise,” he said.
North Shore resident Larry McElheny began his testimony by displaying blown-up photos of the verdant, relatively untouched Kahana Valley a few minutes south of La‘ie and calling the region’s natural resources “some of the most beautiful anywhere on the planet.” He then held up another photo showing the church’s recently expanded Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) in La‘ie.
“It’s hard for me to say this. When we’re talking about the entities we’re dealing with — HRI, PCC, BYU — I just can’t trust these people. How can they think that what’s happening at PCC is compatible with our ecological treasure? They’ve basically put an amusement park in the middle of it. I can see their vision. … It’s just very, very troubling,” he said.
Finally, McElheny questioned whether the decision-makers in Salt Lake City were aware of the prognosis for Kamehameha Highway, where waves regularly overtop the road. “DOT [Department of Transportation] puts rocks and they wash away,” he said.
While most of the testimony that night came from people opposed to more development in the region (due, according to some, to coincidental Christmas festivities that kept many Bill 1 opponents away), several others urged the committee to amend Bill 1 to allow some additional housing.
La‘ie’s Elizabeth Logan Levy, for one, testified that she has friends and family on both sides of the issue and admitted that there were no easy solutions to the housing crisis. But, she said, it’s the people, not just the area’s natural beauty, “that make this place special. … Yes, we should take measures to protect it [but also] make sure people have opportunities to stay.”
BYUH president John Tanner also asked the committee to consider adding more housing opportunities in the area. “We want employees to stay here. They’re living on top of each other,” he said.
Then he said something that seemed to contradict arguments university representatives made in the past to coerce the city to support of the level of development proposed in the Envision La‘ie plan.
“We don’t have plans to grow the university in a major way at all,” he said, noting that current enrollment is about 2,900 and the school’s board of directors have capped it at 3,200.
“Once the cap is met, can the board increase it?” asked Anderson.
Tapper said it could, “but small is beautiful [and] it’s very expensive to be educated here and there isn’t housing.”
“The reason I asked is, this council has heard before in the past that there have been discussions, 25, 30 years out, plans to increase campus size to 5,000,” Anderson said.
Tapper, who has been the university’s president just since 2015, said that there have been no discussions or plans for that. “The cap is 3,200,” he reiterated.
DPP head Kathy Sokugawa later testified that BYUH representatives have, indeed, changed their tune with regard to its needs for additional student housing. Back when the KLSCP update was being drafted, “BYU specifically told us if they did not grow, they would have to relocate out of La‘ie. Now they say they have a cap of 3,200. They told us they wanted an expansion to 5,000,” she said.
“You’re saying in 2009, 2010, BYU had explained to the community that they planned to increase their enrollment to 5,000?” Anderson asked Sokugawa.
“I believe that was public knowledge,” she replied, adding that the 5,000-students projection is included in the DPP’s draft bill on the KLSCP that went to City Council.
“When 5,000 was presented to a committee, was it presented as a final number?” Anderson asked.
“[It was] just a planning horizon for the long-term viability of the campus. How it jibes with the administrative cap, that was not explained to us,” Sokugawa said.
Whatever the housing needs of BYUH — or Ko‘olau Loa in general — actually are,
council member Ernie Martin, who represents the area, has proposed that the agricultural lands at Malaekahana be protected by means of a conservation easement. This despite the facts that 1) Bill 1, if approved unamended, would bar urban development there and 2), HRI just announced it has no plans (at least not right now), to build there. Martin said an easement would protect the land in perpetuity, regardless of whether the church sold its lands at Malaekahana.
Before the meeting, Martin had proposed an amendment to Bill 1 to place the lands at Malaekahana under some sort of protection. At the meeting, he clarified that that protection would come in the form of a conservation easement, adding that he said he hoped HRI would be willing to enter into one.
Beaver said he was open to discussing the matter.
The committee ultimately deferred action on Bill 1 and on Martin’s amendment so that HRI, Martin, and Anderson could further discuss options to preserve Malaekahana.
“I would like to have a decision on this rendered in February. One way or the other, going forward with an amendment or no amendment,” Anderson said.
With regard to HRI’s new development plan, council member Ron Menor said he was skeptical that the affordable housing would be truly affordable under the city’s current standards. He said the council needed to take a much closer look at its affordable housing requirement.
At present, a house that’s affordable to someone making 140 percent of the island’s income is considered affordable. “That’s $700,000. That’s not affordable, that’s market housing,” he said.
Council member Joey Manahan added that adequate infrastructure must also be provided to meet the needs of any future development.
“As somebody who represents the urban core, we’re playing catch-up [with regard to infrastructure, particularly sewage systems]. It’s really quite difficult. If you’re going to ask me to move the growth boundary, what I would like to know is what kind of infrastructure improvements are we going to need,” he said.
“To build nothing is also not a solution. We did that in the urban core and we’re really struggling,” he added.
(For more background on this issue, see our May 2013 cover story and “Committee Tables Malaekahana Development, City Council Chair Awaits a New General Plan,” from our April 2015 issue. Both and more are available at environment-hawaii.org.)
— Teresa Dawson