Right now the County of Maui is allowing massive commercial and residential construction in West Maui, while new roads to handle their traffic remain at least a decade away. Unless this changes soon, things will get dicey for everyone on the island.
June 22, 2006
A friend of mine calls them the "official birds of West Maui." There's at least one in Ka'anapali, but you can find a whole nest of them on North Beach.
Bright yellow with long necks and immense beaks that sweep over the land, they're clearly visible from Honoapi'ilani Highway between the Ka'anapali Beach Resort and that giant pink ziggurat otherwise known as the Embassy Vacation Resort. Of course, I'm talking about the cranes slowly erecting West Maui's latest hotels and condominiums—they may not actually be alive, but lately they sure seem to reproduce themselves as fast as the birds they resemble.
West Maui is changing—possibly more dramatically than ever before. Intense demand for vacations and housing is pushing new home and resort construction all over the island, but it's in West Maui where the delicate balance between private development and public infrastructure is boiling over.
You can get a taste of it today at Kapalua Airport. Standing in the parking lot and looking down towards the ocean, you can see what will become the Maui Land & Pineapple Company's vaunted Pulelehua project.
Off to the left, next to a gulch that looks a lot greener on the pretty Dover, Kohl & Partners master plan illustration than in real life, will be the new elementary school. While Maui Land is donating the 13 acres of land beneath the school and kicking in $2.4 million for its construction, state officials have said it won't get built until around 2011. When it opens, the kids will have postcard views of Lanai, Honokowai and, once those cranes building Intrawest's 700 new condos are gone, the North Beach and Ka'anapali resorts.
On the right, alongside and wrapping around the airport's western edge, will be a lot of new open space and trails. They will provide unparalleled views of Molokai, to say nothing of inter-island commuter planes landing at Kapalua. Since there are only a couple dozen takeoffs and landings each day, hikers will be able to enjoy their strolls reasonably free of propeller noise and aviation gasoline fumes.
And in the center, fanning out from the airport to the highway, will be the homes. Lots of homes—882 to be exact, half of which are slated to be affordable to working-class people—lined up on lots of brand new streets. Assuming Maui Land continues to get its permits approved, in 2009 new residents will be able to gaze out their windows at the ocean, the glorious West Maui sunset and, if projections from a few local citizens hold, a virtual used car lot on what locals like to call Honoapi'ilani Highway.
Though the Maui Planning Commission put a few "conditions" on the project, on June 19, 2006 they sidestepped calls to sit on Pulelehua—and all new West Maui development—until new infrastructure like additional schools and roads get built.
"Please do not allow this project to proceed without… a requirement that a school, as well as measures to improve traffic, be in place before any construction can commence," former Maui Planning Commissioner Louise Ross wrote in a June 1, 2006 letter to the current commissioners. "It is unfortunate that the two massive projects presently underway on North Beach, were allowed to proceed without requiring the developers to participate in sewage treatment plant improvements and traffic abatement measures. Please do not allow these problems to compound by allowing this new project to be built without imposing the above conditions."
Most of the people who spoke at the June 19 Pulelehua hearing supported the project, touting the promised affordable homes that would make half the housing. Some openly mentioned they worked for Maui Land &Pineapple, and at least one wore her snappy red Kapalua Land Co. polo shirt. But retired Maui Community College professor Dick Mayer—who is also a member of the Maui General Plan Advisory Committee (GPAC), which is charged trashing out a new general plan for the entire island—asked that the commission kill Pulelehua and every other West Maui project it sees.
"You haven't assessed the impact on West Maui infrastructure," he warned the panel. "There are many, many roads that need to be built."
Earlier this month, Mayer and 18 of his GPAC panelists voted to send a strongly worded letter to all Maui County Councilmembers and Planning Commissioners saying much the same thing and asking that they halt further development approvals until work onWest Maui infrastructure begins.
Citing an alleged Open Meetings Act violation at that GPAChearing, the county's attorneys have prevented county officials from getting the GPACletter. But at the June 19 Pulelehua hearing, Commissioner Jonathan Starr agreed with just about everything Mayer said. Calling the project "the wrong time and the wrong place" for affordable housing, he made a motion that his colleagues turn down the project entirely.
"Until we catch up in terms of planning," he said, "we should allow GPAC to do its work."
Just one of Starr's colleagues agreed with him and his motion ended up dying. But his recommendation for a moratorium—a dead halt in what has been an inexorable march to a mythical land known in developer circles as "build-out"—is neither new nor particularly radical. Once derided as unrealistic, especially when skyrocketing real estate values make it nearly impossible for working people to buy their own home, a moratorium may be Maui's last hope to stay Maui.
That's because Pulelehua is just one part—a considerable part, but a part nonetheless—of a problem that spans the Westside. According to numbers crunched by Mayer, of the 20,553 housing units already committed for Maui—thus not including Pulelehua, which hasn't yet earned final approval—an astonishing 7,483 of them will go up in West Maui.
It's a major increase in the Westside's size and population. And while it's less than the 8,512 getting built in Central Maui, it's still an immensely high number for a region restricted to a single road in and out of town. And that's not going to change for at least another decade—assuming the state ponies up the estimated $100 million it would take to build a Lahaina Bypass.
Yet the homebuilding goes on. Since a great many people work in West Maui but live elsewhere, the rest of island will reap the benefits of this planning imbalance.
"No one has really wanted to make a good assessment of what is needed in West Maui," Mayer told me. "Unless this is done, people won't be able to live here. Young people can get jobs, but they can't live here. What's the road through Olowalu and Ukumehame going to look like?"
West Maui has been a decade away from a Lahaina Bypass for the last 20 years. To its credit, earlier this year Maui Land helped start "Bypass Now," a group dedicated to push for some kind of alternative road in and out of Lahaina. While laudable, land developers like Maui Land also take advantage of the uniquely permissive Maui planning world.
On the mainland, developers have to pay substantial "impact fees" if they want approval for the big residential and commercial projects. The logic is that the company that stands to profit from bringing so many new people into an area should have to pay to alleviate the corresponding drain on the public infrastructure. As a result, developers routinely pay traffic fees, school fees, sewage fees, water fees and even "community benefit" fees.
Maui's different. Here, land developers don't have to pay very many fees to get their projects approved. Those fees they do pay tend to be, as Dick Mayer put it, "a joke."
For instance, take the $2.4 million Maui Land & Pineapple is giving over for the new elementary school in Pulelehua. That's great and all, but new elementary schools cost about $35 million—more than $100 million if you want a high school—which means the developer is contributing a little less than seven percent of the cost. This, at a time when it seems everyone, including Maui Land, acknowledges that Lahaina schools are already overcrowded.
It's not really fair to bash MLP for this, since they're only doing what the county asks them to do. But that may change: county officials have long talked of asking developers to pay more impact fees for the traffic their projects inevitably cause.
For the last few years, a plan to charge developers a fee per every new housing unit or 1,000 square feet of commercial space based on projected increased traffic and highway expansion costs has floated around the county council. As it is, the plan is flawed, most notably because it's wildly favorable to West Maui developers: a company building a new hotel in Ka'anapali would be hit with a $5,957 per new room charge, while the same developer building the same hotel in Wailea would have to pay $14,670 per room.
"I'm told that there are and there are not traffic impact fees," said Sharyn Matin, an attorney and founder of the non-profit organization West Maui Preservation Association (WMPA). "It's up and down. Everywhere in the world you have to pay impact fees. The county may not be able to charge you, but I can."
Matin may be on to something. Last year WMPA—pronounced "Wompa"—forced developer Intrawest to pay small but significant impact fees for its 700-unit condo complex in North Beach.
She did so by "intervening" in the case—legally standing for people, like herself, who live near the project—to get Intrawest to pay attention to the increased traffic and potential environmental harm the project was going to cause. On Feb. 2, 2005, Intrawest and WMPA settled out of court.
The developer agreed to build a number of pedestrian bridges to protect the shrubbery and delicate sand dunes along the shore—"the only bit of history we have left showing what the beach was like pre-development," said Matin. They also said there would be no pile driving at the construction site.
She also got Intrawest to agree to pay $2.5 million in traffic impact fees, some of which will go towards synchronizing the lights along Honoapi'ilani Highway. And there's a smaller "community benefit impact fee" that will "manage and distribute funds for projects benefiting he community of West Maui."
Still, these are stopgap measures. Many thousands of new residents from all the new residential, hotel and commercial development will pour onto West Maui's already clogged roads, which in turn will routinely back up traffic clear to the Pali. It's happening now, and with the recent Pulelehua approval, any hope of alleviating it seems a distant dream. MTW
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