Cover Story

Image: sean davey, opposite top; blake mcelheny, below and opposite bottom

The North Shore faces an unprecedented development rush.


Cover image for Dec 19, 2012

First coined in the 1970s, the sentiment “Keep the Country Country” still runs deep. But that mantra hasn’t insulated the North Shore of Oahu from the pressures of urbanization, which are squeezing the region on numerous fronts from Haleiwa to Laie, all connected by the sole two-lane highway but lacking a comprehensive plan. The question now is whether citizens will prevail in their efforts to preserve this last stretch of wild green shore from a crush of new projects.

Turtle Bay Resort wants to expand in a big way, and so does Brigham Young University at Laie. Turbines powering the state’s largest wind farm now line the ridges of Waimea Valley, and others were previously erected at Kahuku. In Haleiwa, Kamehameha Schools is planning a major commercial redevelopment, along with additional housing in the town and its surrounding area. And public land slated for expansion of Haleiwa Beach Park may instead be sold to developer D.G. “Andy” Anderson, who wants to build a boutique hotel.

“Our whole district, this beautiful Koolau Loa, is in crisis,” bemoans area resident K.C. Connors, an economic development specialist. Koolau Loa, still a rural region, stretches from the North Shore around Kahuku Point and past Laie to Kaa‘awa on the Windward side.

Ignoring the whole

Residents and community activists are especially alarmed because developers and government agencies are failing to consider the combined effects of these projects on the region’s cherished rural lifestyle.

“We’re saying you have to take a cumulative approach,” says Tim Vandeveer, a founding member of the Defend Oahu Coalition. “We can’t continue to have this sort of myopic view of development at the county and state level and think at the end of the day it’s all going to work out in terms of traffic, infrastructure and tourism.”

Citizens have banded together into neighborhood boards, coalitions and alliances to shape and even fight these projects, sometimes in court. But there’s an overriding sense that their concerns are often bypassed because developers wield tremendous influence in the politically charged land use process. Activists fear the Public Land Development Corp. (PLDC) will make it much easier to cut residents out of the loop entirely, especially when they oppose controversial plans.

“There are some really neat state-owned parcels out here that have defined this region,” says Blake McElheny, a member of the North Shore Neighborhood Board. “Now they may be exposed through this PLDC mechanism.”

Privatizing Haleiwa Park

McElheny points to the current push to develop the 3.4-acre, oceanfront Haleiwa Regional Park as proof. “Here’s a real-life example of what could go wrong with the PLDC,” he says, explaining how the city unexpectedly designated the six parcels that comprise the park as surplus. The city then offered to sell them to the highest-bidding abutting landowner–either Kamehameha Schools or Anderson, who had expressed interest in buying the park land as early as 2006 and purchased the adjoining Jameson’s restaurant in 2010.

The proposed sale is currently being challenged by two separate lawsuits, one brought by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corp. (NHLC) and the other by private attorney Jim Bickerton and his firm on behalf of the Save Haleiwa Beach Park Coalition and two individual beach users.

According to the complaint filed by NHLC, the city acquired the land in 1970 through eminent domain “for the stated purpose of a Haleiwa Beach Park addition” and completed an environmental assessment in early 2000 with an eye toward developing a skate park. In following years, a canoe hale also was discussed, as many canoe clubs use the site. Citizens, meanwhile, were caring for the land under a park stewardship agreement with the city.

Though the city initially rebuffed Anderson’s offers to buy the land, the Parks and Recreation Department supported the sale in 2010, saying development of a park was no longer viable. In May 2011, the City Council passed a bill amending the North Shore Sustainable Communities Plan, which had designated the parcel as a potential park. This past June, Mayor Peter Carlisle introduced a resolution approving the sale by sealed bidding between KS and Anderson. Some 45 citizens testified in opposition, and the Council deferred the matter. The lawsuits were subsequently filed.

“The case is about whether the city administration can sell park land used for ocean access to a private developer,” Bickerton wrote in an email to the Weekly. “It’s never happened before to our knowledge, so we want to make sure it doesn’t happen now and set a bad precedent. If they can do it in an active beach-using community like Haleiwa, they’ll be able to get away with it elsewhere. Right now, their list of parcels they want to sell off includes 15 acres of shoreline property in Waianae, for example,” Bickerton noted (See “Winding Up,” Dec. 12).

McElheny also shared city records that showed the park land had a real property tax assessed value of $2.7 million in 2009, but the value “mysteriously” dropped to just $83,400 after Anderson publicly announced his plans to buy the land and build the 80-room hotel. He thinks the “precipitous assessment devaluation” speaks to Anderson’s “inside connections” with city officials.

“This community has worked so hard to get more park land,” McElheny says. “If they are able to sell a park in a busy area next to a popular beach, whose park is next? If you’re able to close that, what park couldn’t you close and sell? The PLDC could institute on a statewide level what is happening here.”

But Anderson’s hotel isn’t the only change proposed for Haleiwa. Kamehameha Schools (KS), which owns thousands of acres on the North Shore, has substantial plans of its own.

KS developments

The City Council recently gave KS the green light for a $12.6 million plan to redevelop four acres in the town’s core. The historic Matsumoto Shave Ice building will be restored, along with another structure. Four buildings will be torn down, and three new ones will be built, adding about 10,000 square feet of retail space. KS also wants to build an additional 85,000 square feet of new commercial space in Haleiwa. Most of it is slated for a “Town Center” between Kamehameha Highway and the Bypass Highway that will include a major chain drugstore and full-service grocery store.

KS also plans to build 125 apartment units in town, some of them with retail on the ground floor, as well as 150 townhomes and 75 single family homes. At least 130 of the 350 units are proposed to be affordable. The KS website states the residential development is needed to offset infrastructure costs, as well as “create a critical mass necessary for a vibrant living community village.” North of town, KS is looking to develop 110 to 130 house lots at two sites along Kamehameha Highway at Papailoa Road and Kapaeloa.

Area residents already have expressed concerns about increased traffic, though the KS website states that the residential projects will “represent a very small percentage of vehicles on the highway.”

McElheny says efforts to save the regional park may get a boost from KS, which has included the lands in its plan to restore the Loko Ea fishpond. KS also has placed some 8,500 acres mauka of Sunset Beach into an agricultural easement.

But not everyone is pleased with KS’s decision to lease land to First Wind for the Kawailoa Wind project, which came on line last month. It’s the largest in Hawaii, with the potential to generate enough electricity to power about 14,500 homes without burning fossil fuels. Critics, however, say the bright white turbines, which line the ridges of Waimea Valley, ruined one of the island’s most beautiful and culturally significant landscapes.

“That’s the great outrage, what they’ve done to Waimea Bay and Valley,” says resident John Bain. “We all love the idea of not burning billions of barrels of oil but [this is] the one place on Oahu where they shouldn’t have put wind turbines.”

Bain and others say that First Wind should have been able to find another location on KS’s extensive acreage.

But aesthetic considerations weren’t foremost for First Wind. “The turbines on the ridge adjacent to Waimea Valley receive the most wind, and therefore produce the most energy,” according to a “frequently asked questions” document provided by John Lamontagne, the company’s communications director. If they’d moved the turbines out of the view plane, “the project would not have generated enough energy to be worth building,” the document says.

There’s also been dispute over First Wind’s contention that it developed its plans in consultation with the community and kept residents apprised of construction plans. Though the company repeatedly promised the North Shore Neighborhood Board that it would provide visual simulations of the turbines, a review of meeting minutes shows that it did not. And when residents asked if the turbines could be painted green, they were told the structures wouldn’t be in the view plane.

“They whipped these things up suddenly and nobody knew what was going on,” Bain says. “It was obviously some wretched, underhanded backroom deal . . .”

Four turbines, however, were deleted from the layout in response to citizen objections. And First Wind, meanwhile, has bowed to community opposition at Kahuku and dropped plans to add another five turbines to the 12 already erected there. That wind farm has been down since last summer, following a fire at the battery warehouse.

Turtle Bay/Laie sprawl

Area residents are also nervously eyeing expansion plans floated by both Turtle Bay Resort, which owns land between Kawela Bay and Kahuku Point, and Brigham Young University (BYU), which has extensive holdings at Laie.

Envision Laie–a joint proposal by BYU, the Church of Latter Day Saints and Hawaii Reserves–calls for building a new 223-room Courtyard by Marriott hotel on the site of the existing Laie Chevron station, which will be closed in January and relocated to the Laie Shopping Center. BYU, the largest employer in the district, is also expanding its campus, with the goal of doubling its enrollment to about 5,000 students. Construction has already begun on a new 41,000-square-foot, multi-use facility, with plans to also build three new student apartment buildings and seven dormitories.

In addition, the Polynesian Culture Center “may need to expand onto adjacent land, renew facilities, and add new events and attractions,” says Envision Laie’s website.

Paving ag lands

On top of this, some 1,200 units of new housing, as well as an industrial park and a retail center that could include “big box” stores, are proposed for 300 acres of agricultural lands in the Malaekahana area.

The website maintains the expansion is needed because “[t]he lack of jobs has also contributed to a poverty rate of 13 percent in Koolau Loa, nearly double the rate for the rest of Oahu. For Koolau Loa to remain vital and vibrant, BYU–Hawaii and PCC must remain dynamic and relevant.”

Vandeveer says that moving out into undeveloped lands at Malaekahana, mauka of Kamehameha Highway, runs counter to the Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan, which states, “this region shall be defined by its rural character,” Vanderveer says. “What’s rural about a Walmart parking lot?” he asks.

Although the Envision Laie project does have supporters, activists say the boosters are primarily affiliated with the Mormon Church. “Talk about marching in lockstep,” Vandeveer says. “When the Church says come to a meeting and wear this tee-shirt, they turn out in force.”

More traffic

Meanwhile, Turtle Bay Resort LLC wants to add another 1,375 units–625 hotel rooms and 750 houses–to the existing 443-room hotel. Most of the new units are proposed for currently undeveloped stretches of coastline along Kawela, Turtle and Kuilima bays. One hundred and sixty of these units would be designated as affordable. Earlier plans called for as many as 3,500 additional units, but the number has been reduced in response to community opposition and changes in ownership. The company hopes to begin construction in 2014 with 375 timeshares and 225 houses on either side of the existing resort.

Opponents previously challenged the project in court, and as a result, in 2010 the company was required to prepare a new supplemental Environmental Impact Statement. That document predicts a 17 to 28 percent increase in traffic at full buildout in 2025, though Kent Fonoimoana of the Defend Oahu Coalition thinks that doesn’t represent a true picture.

“It’s not just this development, it’s Envision Laie, and Kamehameha Schools in Haleiwa,” Fonoimoana says. “The cumulative impact of all these projects is a huge traffic jam. It’s pretty much gonna kill this community.”

He said state Department of Transportation officials have made it clear there are no plans to add a third lane to Kamehameha Highway. “To widen it, they would have to condemn property and kick people out of their homes, because you’ve got houses on both sides.”

Though a mauka road has been discussed, “there are no plans, and I’ll be dust before it’s ever finished. But I won’t be dust when these projects are finished, and we’re already facing a serious traffic problem,” Fonoimoana says.

“It’s unreasonable to expect the residents of the region to live with that [traffic impact] indefinitely,” says Keep the North Shore Country president and former state Rep. Gil Riviere.

Fewer jobs

Area residents initially supported Turtle Bay because it promised employment to Kahuku Sugar Co. workers who lost their jobs when the plantation closed, Fonoimoana says. But Turtle Bay’s latest plans call for building more condominium units, which require fewer hotel workers than would a full service resort.

“If there’s gonna be an expansion of the resort, with only a limited expansion of good jobs, then where’s the benefit to the community?” Fonoimoana asks.

It’s a question that’s being raised all along the North Shore, where many residents have fought for decades to protect the land and their lifestyle from the unrelenting pressures of urbanization that seem to benefit developers more than residents.

“It’s just a series of fires we’ve been putting out,” Vandeveer says. “It’s looking pretty bleak. We really don’t feel like we can count on any elected officials, but maybe there’s still hope. The only thing that’s worked thus far is litigation, and that’s pretty discouraging, when Joe Blow Citizen has to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to stop something that adversely affects your quality of life.”

Still, he says, there have been some victories, such as the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Turtle Bay EIS. Those wins, coupled with strong support from other Oahu residents and visitors who value the country, keep community activists going.

“These fights aren’t won in the halls of government, they’re won at the grassroots,” Vandeveer says. “We have no choice but to fight.”

And with so much at stake, it’s shaping up to be a pivotal, protracted battle.