City Council Signals Its Support For Housing Expansion in La‘ie

posted in: September 2018 | 0

On August 15, the Honolulu City Council brought the long-delayed revision to the Ko`olau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan closer to final adoption, and a major landowner in La`ie closer to being allowed to build hundreds of new homes.

The council voted 6-3 that day to approve amendments proposed by council member Ikaika Anderson to a bill he introduced last year. That original bill, Bill 1, deleted all language in the plan update, inserted by the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, allowing for urban development in Malaekahana, an undeveloped, rural expanse situated between La`ie town and Kahuku.

But last November, at the council’s planning committee meeting in Hau`ula, Hawai`i Reserves, Inc. (HRI), the land management arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, unveiled a new development proposal that was a far cry from the Envision La`ie plan included in the plan revision proposed more than five years ago by the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting.

According to HRI’s Eric Beaver, the church was no longer planning to build what amounted to a new city, including more than 800 homes, on land it owns at Malaekahana. Instead, it proposed only 300 new units, most of which would be sold at market rates, and all of which would be built in La`ie, he said. Brigham Young University-Hawai`i president John Tanner added that the school had capped enrollment at 3,200, down from the 5,000 figure in the DPP’s plan.

The new plan would require the council to expand the current urban growth boundary by some 50 acres on the Malaekahana side of La`ie, and in February, Anderson proposed amendments to Bill 1 that would do just that. In addition to approving a new growth boundary, the committee increased density limits to allow four more units/acre in rural residential areas and 10 more units/acre in low-density apartment areas, and increased height limits in rural areas from three stories to four stories. Anderson’s amendments also allowed for 100 more units than HRI asked for in November, although they also specifically called for 200 of those units to be workforce housing located on the church-affiliated BYUH campus. (In November, Beaver said it was possible that fewer than 100 of the new units would be affordable, as defined by the city.)

With the DPP’s support, the committee unanimously approved the amendments at a special meeting on July 9, after determining that the amendments were “an appropriate effort to strike a reasonable balance for all sides,” a report of the meeting states.

When the bill came to the full council last month for second reading, many of the same points that had been raised by testifiers on both sides were made again: Those in favor cited how desperately the families of La`ie wanted additional housing and argued that traffic won’t increase since the development would serve those who already work and/or live in the area.

“I have rented in Kahuku, La`ie and Hau`ula for 18 years now and have moved from place to place because people have sold the rental unit I was living in to a vacation home owner from the mainland, replaced me with their family members who needed a place to live, owners moved to the mainland because its too expensive to live in Hawaii, and even though I am a single, professional woman, I have had to live with other people just to make ends meet. I am now 10 years from retiring and not only is the cost of buying a home in this area where I live and work beyond my budget but also the number of houses for sale is limited,” wrote Leann Lambert in testimony to the council.

Those against argued that more development would ruin the rural character of the region, rob farmers and ranchers of valuable agricultural lands, and worsen traffic on a deteriorating and already congested highway.

Tevita Ka’ili, an associate professor of cultural anthropology at BYUH, also raised concerns about potential effects the 200 houses in North La`ie could have on “three significant Hawaiian cultural sites” at Kahawainui Stream, Pa`eo Pond, and Wai`apuka pool. All are home to mo`o, or legendary Hawaiian water guardians, he testified.

Another testifier, Joe Wilson, noted that the two parcels in North La`ie where Anderson proposed allowing 200 homes spanned more than 661 acres, not 50. While HRI’s Beaver assured the council that development would only occur in La`ie, DPP director Kathy Sokugawa suggested that the committee could include such a restriction in the text of the plan, in addition to adopting an amended growth boundary map.

In the end, the amended bill passed, with the three no votes coming from Trevor Ozawa, Brandon Elefante, and Ernie Martin, who represents the Ko`olauloa region. Ozawa, for one, expressed concern that HRI had not provided enough specifics on how much the affordable homes would cost.  As Anderson pointed out in some of his proposed amendments, the median price of a single family home sold on O`ahu’s windward coast during the first quarter of 2018 was $812,000, and the median condo price was $251,900. What’s more, under the city’s affordable housing ordinance, as few as 10 of the 200 homes HRI envisions for North La`ie would need to meet the city’s definition of affordable.

Martin had proposed his own amendments to Bill 1 in February, calling for some sort of official preservation of Malaekahana. Neither the committee nor the council entertained them.

With the council’s approval last month, Bill 1 now goes back to the planning committee. If it passes, it will be sent to the full council for a third and final reading.

At the planning committee meeting in July, land conservation activist Larry McElheny testified that he believed the amendments to Bill 1 were a done deal, calling the council’s public meetings on it a charade.

“I have no illusions that anything I say here today in opposition to this outrageous proposal will change anyone’s vote. I suspect that HRl has determined that they have the votes they need in order to proceed with their selfish and unreasonable plans — otherwise this hearing probably wouldn’t be taking place,” he said.

The Ko`olauloa Sustainable Communities Plan has not been revised since 1999.

— Teresa Dawson

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