Kahaluu proposal fueling cultural concerns


More than a year before Towne Development of Hawaii Inc. submitted a draft environmental assessment for a proposed condominium project above Kahaluu Bay, Kamehameha Investment Corp. officials tried to stop it from happening.

Thomas Yeh, an attorney representing KIC, wrote to former Planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd in March 2012 asking the department to rule that the property, owned by KIC but under contract for sale to Oahu-based Towne Development of Hawaii Inc., was not an appropriate location for time-share units. Yeh based his argument on the county’s Land Use Pattern Allocation Guide, which he said designated the land as low and medium density urban, which does not allow time-share unit development.

Yeh noted a May 2011 letter from the planning department, which indicated the property, mauka of Alii Drive and makai of the proposed Alii Parkway corridor, was actually in the county General Plan’s Keauhou Resort Node. Being in the resort node would allow time-shares, Yeh wrote, but to say the land, referred to in planning documents as Parcel 26, was in that node was effectively moving the resort area’s boundary north by about 3,000 feet, more than half a mile.

Yeh wrote a second letter days later withdrawing the request, but Leithead Todd, at the urging of Towne Development’s consultant, responded anyway, affirming the county’s belief that time-shares are an acceptable developmental use of the land.

Towne Development last month issued a draft environmental assessment calling for 321 time-share units in three-story buildings, as well as 17 single-family homes, on about 43 acres, spanning a relatively long, narrow area above houses fronting Alii Drive but remaining below the proposed Alii Parkway corridor.

KIC earlier this year consolidated its operations, but corporation officials responded to a voice message seeking comment with a written statement.

“KIC’s initial opinion regarding permissible uses on the property differed from that of the developer, however, the County of Hawaii is the regulatory agency with the authority to rule on such matters and as such, final determination rests with them,” the statement said. “The Towne development project is the result of a 2003 residential land sales agreement with KIC, and we will honor the terms of that agreement.”

Officials also noted the public comment period on the draft environmental assessment runs through Monday.

Bill Moore, a planning consultant for Towne Development, said time-share units don’t really create significantly more environmental impact than vacation rentals, such as the ones on nearby properties mauka of Kahaluu Bay.

“It really comes back to the zoning,” he said, noting the planning department’s agreement with the developer that the land lies within the resort district.

Towne Development looked at time-shares for the purpose of the environmental assessment to evaluate the development that would have the most impact, he added.

The draft assessment said the developers didn’t consider other possibilities, such as single-family housing, to be feasible, because no other scenarios “could reasonably satisfy its objectives and vision for the property.”

No work has ever happened on an adjacent proposed project, the long-planned Alii Parkway. The route for that project has been studied more than a dozen times since the 1970s, according to county records. Towne Development’s proposal includes a reference to working with county planning officials on pursuing developing at least part of that right-of-way as an emergency access route from the development to Laaloa Avenue.

Moore said the portion of the right-of-way where Towne would like to see the emergency route is one without significant historical sites. It’s one of the few sections of that corridor not to have the sites, he added.

Building anything on the proposed parkway corridor will be difficult, because of the high number of sensitive sites, Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha said this week. Kanuha, a former member of the Hawaii Island burial council, said he had heard comments in the community about turning the county’s right-of-way into a bicycle and pedestrian path. It’s the county’s job to make sure developments have the proper access for emergency services, he added.

That proposal and the overall development plans are concerning to Hawaiians with long ties to the land. Willy Kahulamu, who lives on family land, is the caretaker for a number of burials on the project site, as well as for a family cemetery near his Kahaluu Road home. He and his wife hosted a meeting of Kahulamu family members last year, to discuss the cultural significance of the sites on the land, as well as potential cultural impacts, as part of the cultural assessment that was eventually included in the draft environmental assessment.

Kahulamu said the cultural consultant asked to see some of the burial sites. Kahulamu said no.

“My grandfather covered the graves,” he said. “Now we’re supposed to say where they are?”

Such locations are considered to be sacred sites, not to be shown or shared with the general public.

Kahulamu and other family, upon reviewing the draft assessment, including the cultural impact assessment, felt their concerns weren’t adequately conveyed or addressed. The report noted that none of the respondents to questions about the property knew of ongoing cultural activities on the land. Kahulamu said taking care of the burial sites is a cultural activity.

He also saw what he feels are contradictions between different reports in the assessment.

“They say save all these bugs,” Kahulamu said, referring to endangered and threatened species often highlighted in such reports. “What about the Hawaiians? They don’t take care of the Hawaiians. We’re getting destroyed by the development.”

The final cultural report didn’t include transcripts of their interviews, which family members said was unusual. Other things members of the extended family noted were a description of the Kuakini Wall that shortchanges the historical structure by shortening its length by several miles and the exclusion of the Kahaluu Trail from the proposed development property.

The Kahulamu family was also concerned about the impact on the family cemetery, which they said would likely be lit by parking lot lights and visible from people staying in the multistory buildings above their property.

Moore said he wants to hear the concerns of neighboring property owners.

“We definitely want to hear all the issues” and try to address those, he said Thursday.

Towne officials, through Moore, said they believe they are adequately addressing cultural impact concerns. Moore said the State Historic Preservation Division of the Department of Land and Natural Resources has accepted two of the many surveys of the property, and burial treatment plans, data recovery plans and other mitigation plans are also in place and approved.

The project lies within the Kahaluu Historic District, established in the 1970s and listed on both federal and state historic registers. Being on the federal register was the trigger for the environmental assessment, but Moore said there are no other regulations related to the designation that would impact the project. The draft assessment mentions the historic registers just once. A message left with the National Historic Register office in Washington, D.C., was not returned as of press time Thursday.

Moore, responding to questions about impacts to water quality at Kahaluu Bay, pointed back to two water studies included in the environmental assessment.

“Results of these investigations reveal significant groundwater discharge off the southern end of the project site, within Kahaluu Bay,” one of the reports concludes. “However, this input is limited in distribution to a narrow zone that extends less than 50 meters from the shoreline.”

The groundwater will be contained in a “surface lens” that will have little contact with the reef, the report said.

Residents along the southern portion of Alii Drive also raised a number of questions about the true impacts of adding more than 300 condo units, whose occupants will be directed to an already crowded, two-lane roadway.

Moore said the project’s traffic analysis was done without taking into account the closure of the Keauhou Beach Hotel last fall, so the area already has less traffic than was considered in the report. The traffic issues, he said, really are less about driving on the road and more related to parking on Alii Drive.

“We believe users of Kahaluu Beach Park (coming from the development) will just walk, not park,” he said.

That will limit the traffic impacts, he added.

Comments on the draft assessment, due Monday, must be submitted to Hawaii County Planning Department, 101 Aupuni St., Hilo, HI 96720; Towne Development of Hawaii Inc., 220 S. King St., Suite 960, Honolulu, HI 96813; and environmental assessment consultant Geometrician Associates, P.O. Box 396, Hilo, HI 96721.