Council approves Kohala Kai public access


Kohala Kai developers were finally successful Friday relieving County Council members’ trepidation over approving a public easement through the luxury subdivision after assuring them the historical Ala Loa trail would be protected.

The council voted 7-1, with South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford voting no and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi absent, to approve the plan.

Resolution 140, which the committee has been struggling with since July, accepts a public easement as a condition of development. The easement would allow for a public trail from Akoni Pule Highway to the shoreline and a lateral trail along the ocean, but does not take into account the Ala Loa trail, believed to follow a jeep road that runs through the property.

A last-minute good-faith agreement between developers and the National Park Service and a verbal agreement with the council will help reserve public access, according to Steven Lim, representing the developer.

Developers plan to meet with the Park Service next week and then take the plan out to the public, he said.

“These are intended to, and I think will, address a lot of the public’s concerns,” Lim said. “This is a voluntary action separate and apart.”

But most council members hadn’t seen the agreement, and they were leery about something new this far into the process. After almost three hours of discussion and additional assurances, council members finally agreed to approve the plan.

“It’s kind of ironic that our good faith agreement with the National Park Service is now coming back to bite us in the butt,” Lim said.

The agreement includes adding deed covenants on the lots, imposing at least a 10-foot buffer from the trail.

The county’s civil attorneys said the agreement is unrelated to the vote before the council anyway.

“That’s not what we’re here to discuss today,” said Deputy Corporation Counsel Bill Brilhante.

Four council members agreed.

“I cannot have my hands tied on the Ala Loa, which is not before us,” said Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter.

But Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha saw it differently.

“It may be separate but the land is not separate,” Kanuha noted.

About a dozen members of the public spoke in opposition, saying they had no assurances that the Ala Loa trail would be preserved.

“There is a statewide attack on public trails, native tenant rights and traditional and customary practices by private interests,” said Charles Flaherty. “I hope the County Council does not become party to this disturbing trend.”

The resolution got stymied last month when council members learned that developers are providing only three parking spaces, that a trail along the shoreline has been moved closer to the ocean than the original trail and that parts of the historical trail have been covered.

“It seems obvious that there are dramatically differing opinions and interpretations with regard to public access and native tenant rights in the area,” said Jeff Sacher.

“As indigenous Hawaiians did then and still do now, I demand safe passage on Ala Loa and request the county of Hawaii to protect my cultural resource our Ala Loa and myself and my ohana,” said Roger Maha Kanealii.

Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille said she’d thought she’d had commitments from the developer at the last meeting.

That proposal, during the committee’s fifth stab at finding agreement, had the county accept a 20-foot public trail along the shoreline, twice as wide as the original plan. The developers would also leave open the question of who has rights of ownership of the Ala Loa trail that crosses the property.

The original agreement was struck between a prior planning director and the developer, with little public notice or input. The current action before the council merely recommends acceptance of the public easement, as the development has already been approved.

The project, by Kohala Kai LLC, contains seven oceanfront lots ranging in size from 5 to 28 acres on a 63-acre tract north of Kawaihae Harbor and just south of Keawewai Gulch. The lots are expected to be sold for $4 million and up.

Former Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd in 2012 approved the location of the trail as a condition of the special management area permit needed for development. The appeal deadline of 30 days has long since run out.

The subdivision was a two-part process, and the first portion of seven lots has already been approved, without regard to the Ala Loa trail. County planners were concerned the county would lose more access if the council rejects the easements for the second portion, composed of five lots.