Billionaire NBA Team Owner Wins Permit to Build Hanalei Compound
Mark Zuckerberg isn’t the only mainland billionaire who wants a private compound in North Kaua‘i for his family. On January 25, Helios Hanalei, LLC — a company formed by Atlanta Hawks co- owner Michael Gearon, Jr. — received approval from the state Board of Land and Natural Resources of a Conservation District Use Permit to construct a single-family residence on a sloping bluff above Hanalei valley, along Kuhio Highway, the island’s belt road.
The board included several conditions intended to ensure that vegetation will hide the home from most vantage points. Should Gearon reduce the amount of vegetation that’s already on the property, he could face daily fines of $2,000 a day and potentially be required to remove all improvements.
While a number of Hanalei residents expressed their opposition to the project, no one was granted a contested case hearing by the board.
The proposed five-bedroom single-family residence is actually seven 18-foot-tall buildings connected by a cedar roofline. The footprint of the home will span nearly 5,000 square feet, which is the maximum developable area for the parcel. In addition to a saltwater pool and decking, Gearon plans to build a spa/hot tub area, lava rock retaining/privacy walls, outdoor showers and a cooking area, as well as “hardscaping.” (The staff submittal to the Land Board mentions another use – “equipment building” – without further elaboration.)
Gearon intends to plant milo, hala, loulu, and naupaka on parts of the property, in part, to preserve the Hawaiian “sense of place,” according to a report by Sam Lemmo, administrator for the Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands (OCCL).
In his report, Lemmo notes that his office received many public comments on the proposed development. The most common concerns were that the home may be intended for commercial use and that it will damage viewplanes or pose a problem should the bluff experience a landslide.
At the board’s January meeting, Lemmo said that most of the house would be concealed by the existing vegetation along the bluff. “Possibly, the roof could be seen,” he said.
Should Gearon start to remove trees or improve his viewplane, the house could become more visible, Lemmo warned. To deter that, his division included permit conditions requiring the homeowner to maintain the vegetative buffer in its current state. While Gearon does plan to improve the screening vegetation, he will face penalties if he tries to reduce it, Lemmo said.
Lemmo noted that Gearon chose to keep the height of the house to 18 feet, which is seven feet shorter than what is allowed under Conservation District rules. However, Lemmo said he was a bit irritated at the fact that he received no response to a request that the landowner provide an alternative to the proposed house.
Land Board members Keone Downing and Stanley Roehrig questioned Lemmo about what the penalties might be should the landowner, say, start running a wedding business or a bed-and-breakfast on the property.
Lemmo said that one of the permit conditions is that the residence shall not be used for rental or any other commercial purpose. As a penalty, he said the board could revoke the permit or impose fines of $2,000 per violation per day if the owner doesn’t cease the unauthorized use.
A deputy attorney general advising the board added that the board could also require the landowner to remove the home.
Addressing the likelihood that Gearon would use the home for commercial purposes, Lemmo asked the board, “Do you people care to know who this guy is? … I’ve interacted with these people. I doubt they would do an Airbnb here, but I hear your concern.”
Attorney Jean Campbell, representing Gearon, assured the board that he’s not planning to cut any trees or conduct commercial uses on the property.
“He is interested in his privacy and the mountain view and distant ocean view. He doesn’t want to see Hanalei town,” she said, adding that she agreed with the deputy attorney general that if the permit is voided, the house can go. “He’s not interested in commercial uses. … That’s so far from anything he has in mind. He wants this to be a legacy for his family,” she said.
Gearon’s sister Tierney added that moving to Kaua‘i has long been a family dream. “My dad’s getting older. My brother is trying to have that dream come true,” she said.
To Hanalei resident Mina Morita, the home Gearon proposed to build was more like a nightmare.
In written testimony to the board, Morita — a former state legislator, Public Utilities Commission director, and Environment Hawai‘i board member — warned that if the permit was approved, it would threaten the open spaces the Hanalei community has been trying to preserve ever since the dedication of 1,000 acres for the Hanalei Wildlife Refuge in 1968. She stated that the community’s intent is “reflected in numerous planning documents and ordinances.”
Morita urged the board to “revisit the original intent when the subdivision of Princeville occurred, that the parcels surrounding the perimeter of Hanalei Valley were intended to be greenbelts and in line with the conservation, protection and preservation of natural and cultural resources.”
At a public hearing in Hanalei on the permit last October, she expressed her dismay that “zoning and land use designation loopholes and lack of recordation of intent at the time of the original subdivision have not protected parcels like this one from development.”
In her written testimony, she claimed that when, in the 1960s and 1970s, land was subdivided in connection with the development of Princeville, “lots along the perimeter of Hanalei Valley were intended to be green belts, a buffer zone, to protect the Hanalei Valley area from the visual impacts of development.”
She offered the parcel’s sales history as evidence that the property was never meant to be developed. “In keeping with the original intent of this lot as a green belt buffer, this parcel was valued at $0.00 prior to 2005,” she testified.
Because the intent to preserve the land was never properly recorded, the sales price of the 14-acre parcel has ballooned, from $5,600 in 2006 to $1.1 million in March 2012, she said. Gearon bought the land in 2016 for $4.3 million.
At the board meeting, member Chris Yuen asked Lemmo whether he was aware of any documentation that confirmed Morita’s claim that the property was intended to be open space in the Princeville master plan. Lemmo said he was not.
Kaua‘i Land Board member Tommy Oi said that when he was still a land agent for the DLNR, a previous owner offered to give the land to the state, but the state didn’t want it.
In addition to concerns over the loss of open space, Morita and fellow Hanalei resident Carl Imperato also worried about how landslides from the ridge would affect their ability to get in and out of the valley.
In her written testimony, Morita informed the board that there have been two landslide events after one last April temporarily closed the Belt Road.
“The proximity of the area to be developed (the western end of the lot) is well- known for water seepage appearing on the highway, causing recurring potholes. This ongoing hazard area is currently marked with concrete barriers along the highway,” she continued. She also asked what kind of right of way would be available for Department of Transportation (DOT) slope mitigation projects if Gearon’s structures impede access. Imperato raised the same concern at the board meeting.
“Access to the parcel for slope stabilization/mitigation work should be preserved by the state and a condition of this permit with the stipulation that built structures should not impede this access,” Morita wrote.
Lemmo told the board that when his division asked the DOT whether it had any concerns about slope stability issues, “nobody would say the home was a problem for them.”
Imperato requested a contested case hearing on the basis that he was a Hanalei resident whose access to his home could be affected if the development didn’t provide a buffer sufficient for the state to mitigate landslide effects. After an executive session, the board voted to deny his request.
Board member Yuen later pointed out that given the topography of the lot, stormwater would “not flow uphill and come down the cliff to the location where they’ve been having problems. … Where the house is located, which is closer to the hairpin turn, the slope is much less.”
Yuen, a former Planning Director for Hawai‘i County, seemed satisfied with Gearon’s efforts to design an unobtrusive residence. “You could build an awful thing upon this ridge. … They could have made a house that maximizes their own view,” Yuen said.
He added that, in this case, he was not worried about the permit conditions being enforceable, given the community interest in the project. “If they violate, we are going to get a complaint. … People are gonna be howling,” he said.
“Believe me, we’re gonna get a lot of complaints regardless of what they do or don’t do,” Lemmo replied.
With a motion from Oi seconded by Maui member Jimmy Gomes, the board unanimously approved the permit.
Ala Wai Flood Permit
The Land Board has granted a right-of-entry permit to the U.S Army Corps of Engineers to allow the agency to conduct due diligence work on state land for its massive flood control project, which will include walls along the Ala Wai canal as well as detention basins throughout the watershed.
Ahead of the board’s vote on January 25, Corps project manager Jeff Herzog told the board that the agency needed the permit to do things like conduct further topographic work to get exact elevations along the Ala Wai canal and bore into the ground to determine what kind of walls should be built to prevent overflowing.
Dave Watase, a landowner whose property the corps is planning to condemn for one of its detention basins, testified in opposition to the permit.
“I’m a one-man band hoping to build an army to fight the Army Corps’ crazy ideas for the Ala Wai project,” he said.
Watase said the corps targeted his entire 35,000-square-foot property along Waiomao Stream for a detention basin in September 2015. “I’ve since been living under the veil of this threat,” he said, adding that he had hoped his three children could one day build their homes on the property.
He argued that it was premature for the Land Board to grant a permit for exploratory work on the Ala Wai flood control project because “public uprising will stop it.”
After an executive session on what seemed to be Watase’s contested case hearing request, the board voted to deny it.
It did, however, vote to approve the permit to the Army Corps.
Before the final vote, board member Stanley Roehrig encouraged the corps to “use a little softer hand with these local people.”
“I think if you folks are a little kinder [you’ll] get a lot better reaction. If things heat up, the problems get bigger and bigger and bigger. … If you want this project to go forward because it has merit, that gets to be a problem,” he said.