Committee Tables Malaekahana Development, City Council Chair Awaits a New General Plan

posted in: April 2015, Development | 0
Malaekahana, O`ahu. Credit: Leslie Kuba
Malaekahana, O`ahu. Credit: Leslie Kuba

The bill that would keep the urban growth boundary at Malaekahana where it is will die if the Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) doesn’t release at least a draft O`ahu General Plan this month or the next.

On March 5, the Honolulu Zoning and Planning Committee agreed unanimously to amend the bill — Bill 47 – by removing all references to development at Malaekahana from the updated Ko`olau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan (KLSCP). Bill 47 recommends that the City Council adopt the updated KLSCP.

Committee members voted to pass the amended bill out for second reading by the full council knowing that council chair Ernie Martin planned to hold it until the DPP released the revised O`ahu General General Plan.

It’s unknown when the department will release the general plan, but it would have to be soon for the council to approve the bill at its July 8 meeting, its last meeting before the bill “expires”on July 13. County ordinances state that bills must be passed within two years of being introduced; otherwise they are filed. Bill 47 was introduced on July 13, 2013.

Between now and July 8, the council must have a second reading of the bill, a public hearing on it must be held, the Zoning and Planning Committee must vote to recommend a third reading, and, finally, the council must pass the bill at that third reading.

In addition to the uncertainty over when the general plan will be released, it’s unclear how or whether its contents will affect Bill 47 or the development potential of Malaekahana. At the committee meeting and in news reports, DPP director George Atta stressed his department’s desire to seek ways to alleviate the overcrowding of homes in La`ie and accommodate natural population growth in the region.

He told the committee there were four options for Ko`olau Loa: 1) allow concentrated development of Malaekahana, as was proposed in the KLSCP his department had originally produced; 2) relax height and density restrictions to allow for vertical growth; 3) spread urban growth throughout Ko`olau Loa; or 4) maintain the current scheme and force residents to find housing elsewhere.

He seemed willing to explore alternatives to the Malaekahana development plan, known as Envision La`ie, that was largely developed by members and supporters of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

“We recommended one way. Actually, I’m open to a discussion of other options if people have another way,”Atta said. “Accommodating increase has to be done in one way or the other.”

Last year, the DPP, as a condition of the Planning Commission’s approval of the KLSCP, conducted a rough assessment of the current housing potential in Ko`olau Loa. Based on current zoning, the DPP estimated that at most, 537 residential units could be developed on undeveloped lands in Ko`olau Loa, according to a February 2014 letter from Atta to former City Council member Breene Harimoto.

Harimoto also asked about the potential for additional housing in currently zoned residential areas that are “under-developed” or which could accommodate additional housing through re-development. In response, the DPP estimated that these lands could accommodate up to 4,300 more residential units. “However,” Atta went on to say, “this figure is not practical because of limitations such as topography and flooding, constraints due to existing facilities, and park use. We believe a more realistic figure is 2,200 units. This number may also be reduced by the availability of infrastructure to support new development and other constraints a landowner may have.”

As far as the number of units that could be built on vacant or undeveloped residential lands  in Laie owned by HRI, Atta said, at most, only 113 could be developed.

“This small number is based on deleting steep lands, lands impacted by flooding, lands designated for parks and open space preservation, and lands encumbered by existing facilities,”he wrote.

At the Zoning and Planning Committee meeting, Atta admitted that the DPP’s computer search of developable lands in Ko`olau Loa was crude.

“When you do computer modeling, it’s not an accurate picture of true capacity. The analysis must be finer than that,”he said.

Although the DPP’s housing capacity estimates suggest there could be more than enough currently developable land to meet the region’s housing needs, Atta told the committee, “the fact that no affordable housing has been developed tells me the market is not addressing the problem. The city and non-profit sectors have to step up or look at growth boundary and height capacity [changes].”

Testimony submitted by Ka`a`awa resident Dee Dee Letts in support of the amended Bill 47 suggested the DPP relax height restrictions on lands in La`ie controlled by Hawai`i Reserves, Inc. (HRI), the church’s land management arm.

“This would allow HRI to develop to higher densities close to existing infrastructure to provide for multi-story or townhouse affordable housing or rentals,” she wrote. Building close to existing infrastructure would also reduce housing costs, she stated.

Letts also recommended that the DPP allow urban use of agricultural land in La`ie.

“The agricultural uses currently in La`ie could be transferred and expanded in Malaekahana, which is currently zoned exclusively for agricultural uses,” she wrote.

Shortly after the committee meeting, Atta and HRI’s Eric Beaver were quoted in a Honolulu Civil Beat article by Denby Fawcett discussing their efforts to find ways to allow for growth in rural areas, including Malaekahana, without amending urban growth boundaries.

— Teresa Dawson

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