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Ooma spared from development

Updated: 
January 4, 2014 - 7:27am

The shoreline at Ooma has escaped development — for good.

Hawaii County on Friday announced it acquired the makai 217 acres at Ooma for $6.2 million under its Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation program. The purchase ensures the shoreline will be preserved in its natural condition, according to the county.

“This open space purchase is the culmination of over 25 years of efforts on the part of the Kona community to protect this parcel of conservation land,” said Hawaii County Councilwoman Karen Eoff, who has been involved with the community effort to protect Ooma and neighboring Kohanaiki in various capacities over the years. “Our community held onto the vision for an open coastline at Kohanaiki and Ooma to protect the class AA waters, the reef ecosystems; to ensure all people would have access to the shoreline for fishing, for surfing, for subsistence gathering and recreation; where families would continue to gather and more traditional uses of the land would be tied to the present and the future.

“This is an awesome gift to our community and it validates the power of a shared vision. It shows us what can happen when a community works together.”

The North Kona land, located between the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority and Kohanaiki Shores development, was the last undeveloped, privately owned segment of coastline between the Kailua town area and Kukio resort, according to the county. The Ooma shoreline connects with some 1.5 miles of shoreline preserved at the county’s Kohanaiki Beach Park to its south.

Ooma, which has traditionally included both the makai parcel and an 87-acre mauka parcel, has been at the center of several unsuccessful and controversial development proposals since the 1980s. Most recently, the Land Use Commission in 2010 rejected, and in 2011 upheld that rejection on appeal, developer Ooma Beachside Village’s request to reclassify the land from conservation to urban.

In May 2012, the parcels went up for sale again. In August of that year, the Hawaii County Council adopted a resolution asking the mayor to authorize the finance director to begin negotiations for the land.

Funding for the acquisition comes via the Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation Fund. The fund was approved in 2012 by Hawaii County voters and required that a minimum of 2 percent of the island’s real property taxes be put into the fund.

Prior to the purchase of the 217 acres at Ooma, the fund stood at $6.2 million, Mayor Billy Kenoi told several dozen people at the West Hawaii Civic Center on Friday, noting that he expressed concern about spending the entirety of the funding on one purchase when the county is working to acquire other open space areas, including Pohoiki in Puna, for protection.

Luckily, he said, neighboring development Kohanaiki Shores LLC donated $2 million to allow the purchase to go through, leaving approximately $2 million in the open space fund. The 217-acre parcel was listed at $12 million, however, Kenoi said his staff was able to negotiate the price down to $6.2 million.

“There was no quid quo pro Joe (Roote) and John (Stratton) and the (Kohanaiki) ownership group never asked for one favor they never said ‘we give you this, you guys help us with that,’” Kenoi said, noting the donation is likely the largest contribution on record to the county for preservation of open space, public access and natural resources.

The purchase closed Dec. 31 and the property is officially within the county’s hands, Kenoi said. The acquisition does not require Hawaii County Council approval, he confirmed.

“People can go in, it’s open,” Kenoi said. “It’s public access already.”

The Public Access, Open Space and Natural Resources Preservation commission in its 2012 annual report to the mayor, released in February 2013, listed the 217-acre makai portion of Ooma as the commission’s No. 1 priority for acquisition. The Mamalahoa and Ala Kahakai National Historic trails both run through the property.

The commission identified the mauka 83 acres as its 14th priority that year.

Both parcels, according to the commission’s report, would also serve as a buffer between the shoreline and mauka urban area. Kenoi said his office is currently working on a management plan for the 217 acres it just acquired at Ooma.

The next priority for the program, Kenoi said, is to acquire 26.7 acres for open space at Pohoiki Bay in Puna.

Since 2008, the county has purchased more than 1,246 acres to preserve shorelines and open space for children, families and the community, according to Kenoi. The acreage includes 785 acres at Kawa in Ka‘u; 228 acres at Kaiholena and 10 acres at Paoo in Kohala; and 6 acres at Laaloa and the recently acquired 217 acres at Ooma.

Kahala Capital in 1984 came first with a proposal to develop a 600-room hotel, 300 condominium units, an 18-hole golf course, a Sea World-type water park and ocean science center in the area. The county and state Office of Planning initially approved the project, but in 1993, the state Land Use Commission denied the petition to urbanize the property. Kahala Capital appealed the ruling, but 3rd Circuit Court Judge Ronald Ibarra upheld the commission’s findings in 1993.

Next was Morris, with Clifto’s Kona Coast project, a 400-room commuter hotel, 240 apartments and a shopping center. The County Council rejected that plan during the 2003-04 council session. California developer Dennis Moresco purchased the entire area, which included the 83-acre mauka parcel and 217-acre makai piece, for nearly $35 million, according to previously published reports.

Moresco’s Ooma Beachside Village development went to the Land Use Commission several years ago. After more than a year of hearings, hours of testimony and hundreds of community members speaking out against Moresco’s proposed 950 to 1,200 residential units on 302 acres makai of Queen Kaahumanu Highway, commissioners rejected his boundary amendment request. The plan also included 1,100- to 1,700-foot shoreline setbacks.