Thirty-two years ago, after three decades of runaway development, Oahu adopted the General Plan for the City and County of Honolulu. The document set out, for the first time, an overall strategy for directing future economic and population growth while preserving open space and agricultural lands. That plan, while not inviolate, represents the government’s best effort to manage–and constrain–the growth of commerce, population and industry on this island.
Today, the General Plan calls for the overwhelming majority of new development to take place on the ‘Ewa plain–plans for rail transit are part and parcel of the effort to direct growth toward Kapolei and Central Oahu. The other way to look at it: Growth is being directed, by design, away from East and Windward Oahu, Koolauloa and the North Shore.
That wasn’t always the case. In the go-go 1950s and ’60s, developers and politicians dreamed up all kinds of schemes for the Windward side, most of them along the lines of sprawling subdivisions. But residents fought back, and the country stayed country. For the most part, anyway. The possibility of five resorts near Kawela Bay has loomed for decades, and every few years it seems some new proposal emerges that would allow a little bit more development here, just a touch more there.
That’s the thing about “Keep the country country.” On one hand, it’s perhaps the guiding principle that governs development on this island, written into just about every planning document we have. On the other, it’s a constant, exhausting struggle.
[View the proposed changes to the Koolau Loa Sustainabile Communities Plan (pdf)]
This week, that struggle finds itself at what may be a defining moment. There is a proposal in the hands of the Department of Planning and Permitting to build what amounts to a brand-new town in Malaekahana, mauka of Kamehameha Highway, on what is now undeveloped agricultural land. The idea is driven, supporters say, by a need for housing nearby residents can afford, and for Brigham Young University Hawaii to expand. Opponents are dismayed, arguing that the essential character that defines Koolau Loa is under threat. In two meetings over the next several days, the Koolau Loa community–residents of the area bounded by Kaa‘awa to the south and Kahuku to the North–will have the opportunity to make their voices heard.
“A whole new town.”
In a June 30 letter to Director of Planning and Permitting David Tanoue, nine members of the Koolau Loa Planning Advisory Committee proposed changes to the city’s planning guidelines for the area. Among the changes:
• 1,260 housing units in Malaekahana. According to the proposal, “the planned Malaekahana expansion of Laie would be situated on approximately 300 acres mauka of Kamehameha Highway,” and would include a range of housing forms, including low density apartment development.
• Malaekahana Neighborhood Market. The proposal describes this area as a “small-scale grocery, retail, and some local service space.”
• Expansion of Laie commercial center into Laie Village Center. “The La’ie [sic] Village Center may over time expand and evolve into more of a pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use area, with an organized collection of mixed-use retail, office, residential, recreation, entertainment, and hospitality uses…and may also serve as a transit center for local bus services.”
Most of the development proposals, all of which involve land owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, involve major new development in Malaekahana, an area familiar to most island residents for its oceanfront state park, Gunstock Ranch and rolling green hills mauka. Malaekahana is currently home to a population of fewer than 300 people. If the new proposals are enacted, and current area household sizes stay roughly the same, the overall population of what the proposal alternately calls Laie, Malaekahana and Laie-Malaekahana would more than double, from 4,863 to well over 10,000.
Creighton Mattoon, a long time Koolau Loa Neighborhood Board member active in the community, puts it plainly. “They’re calling this an expansion,” Mattoon says, “but what they’re doing is building a whole new town.” Most of the proposed development would fall outside the existing Laie rural community boundary.
Either way, at least one consequence is clear: if enacted in their entirety, the proposed amendments to existing development plans would change the shape and character of the stretch of Koolau Loa coastline between Hauula and Kahuku. The proposals amount to the creation of a community larger than present-day Waimanalo, to be built along the two-lane highway that is the area’s only link to the rest of the island–and vice versa.
The planning process is complex, and the ultimate fate of the new proposals for Koolau Loa rests in the hands of the City Council and the mayor. This week’s meetings, however, are key, and will provide DPP, the Planning Commission and ultimately Honolulu Hale leadership with a window into community sentiments. The proposals appear to have substantial support in many quarters of Laie itself, where residents complain about high housing prices and a lack of jobs. It remains to be seen whether residents of neighboring Hauula and Kahuku will approve. And of course, the larger question, of the impact of Laie-Malaekahana on the growth of Oahu generally, remains open.
Similar proposals have emerged from Laie before, some as recently as last year. The Mormon church, with its religious, institutional and economic influence, exerts considerable–some say “dominant”–influence over affairs in Laie. The Church has long argued that its properties in the area need room to grow. The Polynesian Cultural Center and BYUH, the community’s two primary economic engines, claim they are “unsustainable” in their current states. Both church and community leaders–the distinction is sometimes unclear–also say that the construction of new affordable housing is critical for Laie, pointing to high property values (median sale price of $895,000) and a relatively high number of residents per household (4.7) in the area.
Earlier this decade, LDS-owned property development company Hawaii Reserves, Inc., advanced a proposal for workforce housing development similar to the one now making its way through the planning department. In March 2008, however, HRI president Eric Beaver announced that the company would abandon its plans. He cited market conditions and the cost of the entitlement process, but also pointed to political factors, including “moderate community support.”
Or, as Koolau Loa Neighborhood Board member Dee Dee Letts, who is also an officer with Keep the Country Country, Inc., put it: “They didn’t have the votes.”
Letts is referring to the proposal’s reception by the Neighborhood Board. Under the city’s Neighborhood Board system, the boards do not have legally binding powers, but are a critical resource for community voice in government and a window into the community for officials, particularly in land use, permitting and planning decisions. Koolau Loa’s board, which represents residents from Kaa‘awa to Kahuku, was for many years dominated by experienced community leaders and activists, the majority of whom held a tough line against large-scale development in the area.
“We’ve been trying to keep it country, plain and simple,” says Mattoon, whose wife Cathy has also been active in the community for decades and helped to write the petition that established the neighborhood board in 1975. “There is the need for some development, but it’s mainly rural and we want to keep it that way.”
In last November’s election, however, the balance of the board shifted. Letts, who had served as president, lost that post. The new majority struck a more receptive tone to large development plans.
That was fortuitous timing for the church-owned entities, which had in August launched a project called “Envision Laie.” The project, which is ongoing, involved a series of workshops held this spring in which community members were invited to help shape a vision for the future.
Honolulu Weekly made repeated attempts to contact Beaver about Envision Laie and the proposed development generally. A representative from Hawaii Reserves, Inc., referred questions to BYUH President Steven Wheelwright, saying, “Envision Laie is really a BYUH initiative.”
But Wheelwright stressed that Envision Laie is actually a community effort–the project’s Web site calls it a partnership between BYUH, HRI and the community–and he says the community is frustrated with the lack of available housing. “The area is not growing,” says Wheelwright. “It hasn’t grown in years, and people are becoming increasingly frustrated. So one chunk of this is about housing. This is a very family oriented place. People don’t want to keep seeing their families move away because they can’t afford to live here.”
“Last year, more than half the houses [that sold in] Laie were sold to nonresidents. The vast majority of the population out here would like to see improvement in housing. Not just more affordable housing, but housing that’s affordable. The [exisitng development] plan does not set that as a goal at all.”
Sustainability = growth.
The Sustainable Communities Plan is the mechanism used by the city to direct growth within the guidelines of the General Plan. Every region of Oahu has one, and they are the product of extensive research and community involvement from a range of stakeholders. Each plan is updated, following a review process, every five years.
The Koolau Loa SCP, which is currently nearing the final stages of its five-year review, is the document that the June 30th proposal, and the Envision Laie project from which it emerges, seeks to amend. Under the existing plan, for example, Koolau Loa is “projected to maintain its country character and to experience very little growth over the plan’s 20-year planning horizon.” The Envision Laie amendment would change the words “very little” to the less restrictive “modest.” Similarly, to the existing plan’s support for “policies to limit the growth of the region’s housing and commercial development,” Envision Laie leaders have added the phrase “while accommodating the strong need for new housing, services, and employment in order to promote sustainability of the community.”
That’s a definition of sustainability not often encountered these days, and it is found repeatedly in both the proposed amendments to the Sustainable Communities Plan and on the Envision Laie Web site. In the FAQ section there, it reads, “we believe the most important measure [of sustainability] is whether through growth more families can afford to stay in the country.” Another reference puts it more bluntly: “A possible solution for sustainability might be reached through growth.”
Wheelwright is frank in discussing the proposed changes. “I think you’re seeing a group of people who live out in this area, who would like to see a sustainable communities plan that involves some growth in housing so they can address their families not being able to live with them.”
The BYUH president says that the viability of the university is at stake.
“We’ve got a 50-year-old physical plant, much of which needs to be rebuilt. And we need housing too, for faculty and staff. You can’t afford to renew to the physical plant at 2,500 students. We need more students in order to make the economics sustainable.”
Wheelwright says the university needs to grow at about 5 percent per year in order to be able to afford the upgrades necessary to compete for students. Those new students, in turn, would need housing. And while the existing Sustainable Communities Plan already provides for additional housing in undeveloped area behind the university, Wheelwright says Malaekahana is the more appropriate location.
“We want to save university land for university growth,” he says. “Obviously you can do some infill in Laie. But most people out here would much rather have, instead of sprawl, a separate community just like Laie, down the road in Malaekahana.”
Wheelwright points to surveys conducted by the Envision Laie project. “In addition, the vast majority of people out here would like to work out here, rather than to commute to other places. In order to have that happen, the entities–the PCC, BYUH–out here need to grow, too. The university needs to grow. It’s a different vision than zero-growth, absolutely.”
What kind of future?
Kirk Peterson, who lives in Laie, said he was inspired to attend Envision Laie planning meetings in April after seeing a flier for the event. “I got a notice in the mail about the workshops. One of the first words I saw on there was ‘sustainable.’ And I thought, ‘oh, hey, they’re trying to do something, that’s cool.’ And I go the meeting and there are these maps [which attendees used to build their ideal future footprint of area development] and all I see is all these stickers representing townhomes, condos and apartments and I’m like, what?”
Peterson and others question what they see as a rush toward growth. “I’m for developing what’s needed,” he says. “But maybe first let’s look at what’s already provided for.”
Letts says that’s exactly what BYUH and its partners should be doing. “If they stuck to their orignal plan, I think they’d be fine.” She points to the SCP as it was amended in the 1980s, when the area behind BYUH was set aside, along with other sites for commercial development.
“This is the second time we’ve been through this,” Letts says. “We sat down with Laie in the ’80s. We sat with them around the table, and it was all the same arguments. They needed more affordable housing, commercial space for jobs, light industrial park for jobs and expansions for PCC and BYU. Well, they expanded PCC, they expanded BYU, but they never built the affordable housing.”
Peterson just wants to keep the country country. “I think it’s one of the special places that hasn’t been built up,” he says of the Gunstock Ranch area where most of the new housing is planned. “Might as well try to save the last area. I want to raise awareness for other people who feel the same way to speak up. We need to show the community that it’s not just a few people.”
Peterson doesn’t think of himself as an activist, but he’s taking action.
“I want to put out a petition. I’ve never written a petition before. I want to do it so that all the people who want their voice heard, can be heard.”