“It’s not that I don’t like ResortTrust. You just got the potato at the end of the game,” Board of Land and Natural Resources member Keone Downing told the company’s representatives on September 14.
“One potato, two potato, three potato, four. You’re the fourth,” added fellow member Stanley Roehrig.
That day, in an attempt to resolve longstanding disputes over the hotel’s use of a 1.28-acre beachfront parcel, the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Land Division proposed issuing a new permit to the ResortTrust Hawai`i, LLC, which took ownership of the Kahala Hotel & Resort in 2014, to officially authorize a variety of existing uses, including some that would be commercial. (See our cover story for more on this.)
Downing and Roehrig were two of the more skeptical board members during discussion of the permit, which was ultimately deferred due to a contested case hearing request. But Downing noted that ResortTrust wasn’t as bad as the hotel’s previous owner, which he said kicked him and his friends off the public beach several years ago. He even commended the company for trying to be responsive to the public’s concerns. “They tried to post signs … They could have done nothing. They’ve taken chairs off the beach part,” he said.
During public testimony on the matter, state Senator Laura Thielen, who headed the DLNR several years ago, warned that the decent tenant it has right now may not be there years from now. And by simply issuing or renewing revocable permits for the property fronting the hotel, the department was failing to do what was best for the area, she argued.
“When it comes to access to our beaches and public lands, it’s an issue near and dear to my heart and my constituents,” said Thielen, who represents Kailua, Waimanalo, and Hawai`i Kai.
She said that the hotel and its predecessors have had revocable permits for the property since 1968 and “they’re looking to continue management authority for the next 50 years.”
Because the parcel is beachfront property, subject to erosion and sea level rise, she recommended that the board consider what’s going to be occurring on the property over that period.
“What’s the estimated high tide line going to look like in 10 years, 15 years? … We’re going to be losing a lot of beach in 50 years. … We need to be having a policy of retreat. How is this property going to play into that when that beach area is going to become smaller and smaller? You don’t wrestle with those issues that you don’t have data on in an RP process,” she said, adding that such questions could only be answered in an environmental assessment.
She said that she appreciated that ResortTrust was trying to be a good neighbor, but said the state could have three successive owners over the next several decades and recommended that the Land Division scrap the permit proposal and instead restart efforts to put the land under a long-term disposition.
Board chair Suzanne Case reminded Thielen that when the company tried to obtain an easement a couple of years ago, it was met with opposition by some members of the public. Downing noted that complaints about the hotel’s use of the area erupted when it sought the easement, and ResortTrust’s own attorney Jennifer Lim admitted, “it probably wasn’t the best idea.”
Even so, Thielen suggested that by keeping the property under a revocable permit, the board won’t ever discuss what should be done with it in the long term.
“Mr. Downing mentioned [ResortTrust] got stuck with the potato. That game’s not over. At some point the public wears out, the institutional knowledge gets lost. It may be as you wrestle with [a long-term lease or easement], you’re going to come up with different types of requirements,” she said.
David Kimo Frankel, who requested the contested case hearing on the permit, also argued that an environmental review needed to be done for the property to cover the uses proposed by the Land Division, but he did not echo Thielen’s view that such a review could only accompany a long-term disposition such as an easement or a lease.
— Teresa Dawson