Commission Approves Ko`olau Loa Plan Despite Questions Over Housing Figures

posted in: Development, May 2013 | 0

Some of the building blocks of the Ko`olau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan (KLSCP) have been moving targets in recent months. Information about the region’s population, growth trends, and number of potential housing units was either absent from or sorely outdated in the version released by the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) in December and presented to the Planning Commission in mid-March.

Over the course of hearings in March and April, the commission got the DPP to address those key issues after repeated failed attempts by members of the public. But with some data still being refined at the time of its vote, the commission basically left it to the City Council to decide whether the KLSCP actually accomplishes what its title suggests.

Second to the issue of whether to allow bed-and-breakfasts in Kailua, proposed development in Ko`olau Loa received the most public comments — both for and against — in a recent survey done as part of the city’s preparation of the O`ahu General Plan. In particular, the proposed KLSCP provisions allowing for the construction of a new town on a panoramic stretch of rolling fields between Kahuku and La`ie have caused a huge rift in the Ko`olau Loa community. The new “rural metropolitan area”, commonly referred to as Envision La`ie, would eliminate a lot of green space and add a lot of housing units, said Helber, Hastert & Fee planner Scott Ezer at a recent University of Hawai`i seminar on planning. The city contracted his company to help draft both the KLSCP and the O`ahu General Plan.

“There are a lot of people who want housing,” he said. “Equally, there are a lot of people who see it as a last stand … of keeping the country country.”

On April 3, a few planning commissioners expressed their concern that the infrastructure in Ko`olau Loa — especially the lone two-lane coastal highway — may not be able to handle the proposed mini-city north of La`ie and resort development at Turtle Bay. They added that it’s unclear how many more housing units the plan proposes for the region. Both chair Ka`iulani Sodaro and commissioner Dean Hazama suggested deferring the commission’s decision on the regional plan until the City Council approves the O`ahu General Plan, a draft of which had recently been released for public comment.

But within a few minutes of expressing their concerns, they voted along with the rest of the commission to approve the plan on the conditions that DPP staff do the following:

Clarify the number of potential housing units already allowed under current zoning;

Indicate how many more housing units the revised plan envisions; and

Include specific language in the plan about whether any of the proposed units are being moved from one area to another. (This condition refers to the fact that the 1999 KLSCP identified two parcels in the back of La`ie where Brigham Young University planned to build 550 housing units, which were never built. The revised plan states that the university now plans to build 875 units on 300 acres of former ranch land in nearby Malaekahana.)

The plan now goes to the Honolulu City Council for approval. Whether the council will vote on it before taking up the O`ahu General Plan remains to be seen. The council has already held off voting on three SCPs that the commission has approved. A draft of the general plan is expected to be submitted for commission approval later this year.

Distribution Guidelines

In arguing for a swift approval of the KLSCP, DPP chief planner Kathy Sokugawa told the Planning Commission that none of the proposed changes in the proposed general plan revision would significantly affect the Ko`olau Loa region. For example, the current plan dictates that Ko`olau Loa should have only 1.4 percent of the island’s population, and so does the proposed revision.

But whether the KLSCP helps to attain that population distribution goal is far from clear. In the last two months, the DPP has not only significantly adjusted the population numbers in the region, it’s also reversed the anticipated population trend.

The version of the plan released by the DPP last December projected that Ko`olau Loa’s resident population would increase from about 14,500 in the year 2000 to about 15,500 in 2035, “representing an increase of less than one percent per year over a 35-year period.”

The department also projected that by 2035, the area’s population would account for approximately 1.4 percent of O`ahu’s population. (The DPP made these projections in September 2009, according to a footnote in the proposed KLSCP.) But at the Planning Commission’s March meeting, one area resident pointed out that 2010 census numbers indicate that Ko`olau Loa’s population already far exceeds 15,500.

Commissioner Hazama asked DPP’s Raymond Young why the population numbers in the plan differed from the recent census numbers. Young stated merely that his department had a population projection for O`ahu from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, but was “still working towards getting projections for plan areas.” He said that while he understood that “there are some population discrepancies,” his department had no choice but to use 2000 census numbers.

“Part of the reason we’re having trouble with that, the way the new census numbers are done is a little different. We need to make some adjustments. Our statistical staff is hard at work,” he said.

Mainly, the DPP needed to subtract out census data for Pupukea — the stretch of land between Kawela Bay and Waimea Bay — because, for some reason, it’s not included in the KLSCP area. Without Pupukea, the Ko`olau Loa population was about 16,800 in 2010.

When the Planning Commission met in early April to decide whether to forward the KLSCP to the City Council, Young presented new population numbers, as well as a new growth trend.

First, he said that contrary to the plan he presented a month earlier, the population in Ko`olau Loa will decrease by 2040.

“Our preliminary findings indicate by 2040, Ko`olau Loa would be 1.5 percent of the island population,” he said. Currently, it’s at about 2 percent, up from 1.66 percent in 2000, and 1.7 percent in 1990.

The DPP’s statistician has determined that the KLSCP area contains 16,732 people. Young said the population is expected to shrink to 16,172 by 2035. Although he did not say why his department now believes the population is going to shrink instead of grow, recent population forecasts by both DPP and DBEDT suggest that O`ahu’s population will grow more slowly than before because of its aging population and mature economy.

In an email to Environment Hawai`i, Young indicates that even now, the DPP’s projections are in flux. “DPP is researching what the difference in population numbers are attributed to and an update of its population forecast based on the 2010 Census for the development plan regions, including Ko`olau Loa,” he wrote. He provided no bases for the projections he presented in April.

The U.S. Census estimates that about 953,000 people lived on O`ahu in 2010. Based on a 2011 DEPP report’s prediction that O`ahu’s population will grow by “only 4,000 more residents a year by 2035,” the population in the Ko`olau Loa SCP region would actually have to shrink to fewer than 15,000 people to meet the general plan percentage distribution goal.

A Major Caveat

The DPP’s assertion that Ko`olau Loa’s population will shrink by 2035 omitted one key point: that projection does not include the proposed expansion planned by the Mormon Church for Malaekahana and La`ie.

The KLSCP points out that BYU-Hawai`i, a Mormon school, plans to roughly double its student population in La`ie, from 2,700 to 5,000. Also, the KLSCP notes, Hawai`i Reserves, Inc. (HRI), a developer for the church, plans to build 875 housing units, mostly for BYU-H staff, faculty, and area residents already employed by church-affiliated entities. The remainder would be sold at market rates.

Just how many more people the expansion will add to Ko`olau Loa is unknown. The 300-acre area at Malaekahana that is proposed to be included in the KLSCP community growth boundary is roughly the same size as the urbanized area of Kahuku, home to more than 2,600 people.

“When we make these projections, they never include projects not approved through the zoning process,” Young told Environment Hawai`i. Until a developer comes to the department for a zoning change and gives some indication of the anticipated density, it’s very difficult to estimate how a project will affect the population, Young said.

Even so, the KLSCP states that the expansion won’t affect the population much since many of the houses will simply meet pent-up demand from people already living in the area. Furthermore, according to the plan, traffic won’t be affected because most of the residents will live and work in the immediate area. Also, a connector road planned to be built at the base of the mountains will string Kahuku, Malaekahana, and La`ie together, further minimizing traffic on Kamehameha Highway. the plan states.

HRI had first proposed building 1,260 units at Malaekahana. In 2009, the Public Advisory Committee (PAC), tasked with drafting the initial plan, chose to preserve Malaekahana as open space. That year, several dissenting PAC members who supported HRI’s proposal sent the DPP amendments that would meet the church’s and the community’s needs.

Of the new units proposed, approximately 350 of the new units would alleviate pent-up demand and overcrowding, the group claimed. “Another 400 units are intended to serve direct employment growth from BYU-Hawaii and Polynesian Cultural Center expansion, and 300 more units are expected to be needed to accommodate multiplier effect and indirect growth from this expansion. The last 210 units are needed for market rate homes that may include vacation homes and second homes and therefore are not expected to increase area population. These 210 units are needed to help pay for workforce housing units and infrastructure,” their draft stated.

Only 875 units made it into the plan. The KLSCP provides no breakdown of who the intended occupants of those units are. PAC member Dee Dee Letts testified in March that 400 of the proposed Malaekahana units would be market-rate homes.

Buildable Units

At the Planning Commission’s March meeting, one La`ie resident after another described their cramped living quarters and expressed their desire for a home in the area of their own or for their children. Census figures confirm that homes in Ko`olau Loa are more densely packed than in any other region on the island. And within Ko`olau Loa, La`ie houses are the most crowded.

The KLSCP proposes the Malaekahana expansion as a solution. But according to Letts, ample housing is provided for under current zoning.

In written testimony, Letts states that the DPP has said that it expanded the community growth boundary to include Malaekahana because the plan the PAC had drafted ignored housing needs. Not true, she argued, adding that the DPP removed a section in the community’s draft on “identified areas in La`ie and Kahuku that would provide 720 units.”

“The PAC did look at vacantly zoned URBAN lands within the Ko`olau Loa area and noted that there are enough acres in addition to those mentioned above currently zoned to meet the need. The problem with these acres is that they are not owned by HRI. A chart of currently urban zoned lands and the number of units those lands can accommodate has not been included in the SCP although it was requested by the PAC,” she wrote.

The Planning Commission asked the DPP’s Young to provide it with that information at its next meeting. On April 3, Young reported that current zoning — in R-5, R-7.5, and country (Urban District) areas — allowed for up to 4,356 housing units between Hau`ula and Kahuku: 3,588 units on private lands, 174 on city land, and 595 on state land. Those totals do not include lands with slopes greater than 20 percent, considered by many to be unbuildable for physical or economic reasons.

Although some people might see this as more than enough currently zoned land to meet any projected housing needs for the area, Young said that development in flood zones would need to meet certain standards, which would result in higher costs.

“Much of those properties, even including BYU sites, are in flood areas,” he said. Some sites, such as the Kahuku High School property or Malaekahana State Recreational Park, may allow for additional structures, but are unlikely to meet the area’s housing needs, he added.

In La`ie, Young noted that several hundred potential dwellings are allowed by current zoning. Most of the land is already used by BYU or the Mormon Church, he said, adding that some of the church’s great lawn and other large open grass fields could be made available for housing.

“The bottom line is if you were to take constraints into consideration, that 4,000-some units would perhaps be substantially smaller,” he said. In any case, his department supported the KLSCP as proposed.

Hazama asked Young how many units there would be if lands in flood zone areas were removed.

“Based on limited time, we do not have a figure for you. It would be substantially less. We cannot back it up at this point,” Young responded.

When asked about the area in La`ie where 550 units were approved for BYU housing but never rezoned, Young said the reason why the new plan shifts development to Malaekahana is because “the owners thought back in that area the development constraints were far too great — steep, not contiguous parcels. Malaekahana would be flat, more easy.”

The development proposed in the new plan represents about a 30 percent increase over what’s allowed in the 1999 plan, Young said.

When commissioner James Pacopac asked at the March meeting whether the KLSCP reflected a compromise between the opposing community factions, Young said simply, “We feel it’s the department’s position. It’s the best we can present to you at this time to address affordable housing, jobs and to keep the community from losing a major economic driver. … It did not make sense to risk the loss of such a major economic driver of the area.” The Mormon Church and its affiliated entities (BYU-H, PCC, HRI) own most of La`ie town and reportedly employ nearly a third of all residents in the Ko`olau Loa SCP area. Both PCC and BYU-H have argued that they need to expand to remain financially viable.

Final Words

At the April meeting, Pacopac, for one, supported the DPP’s plan.

“Being that we are just the committee that recommends to the council on items such as the community plan … I don’t see any reason to hold this up,” he said.

Chair Sodaro said she had concerns about the DPP’s “grip of population percentages.” And after hearing about the potential units available, she said she wanted more clarity on the population forecast for the area.

“I appreciate the need for a general plan context,” she said, adding that she saw “no value in escalating the community conflict to the council level.” She suggested that the incoming DPP director [George Atta] facilitate discussions to “continue to resolve a lot of the passion and concern over lifestyle, infrastructure…”

Her concerns were not shared by commissioners Rodney Kim, who moved to approve the plan, or by Daniel Young, who seconded the motion.

Hazama asked that the motion be amended to “at least include conditions regarding some of the concerns raised. … One would be definitely specifying the… housing count.”

Sodaro asked that another condition be added to provide clarity on the lands in La`ie being exchanged for housing development in Malaekahana.

The commission then approved Kim’s motion with the amendments proposed by Hazama and Sodaro

Volume 23, Number 11 May 2013

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