The Price of Priceless
Is ML&P serious about Honolua Bay, or is it all about the bucks?
August 21, 2008"Once you start taking care of the 'aina, you just can't stop," Les Potts tells me as he picks up an empty soda can and tosses it into the bed of his pickup. I've come just past the bay in hopes of finding some northern wind swell relief from another southern summer flat spell when I run into Potts—hardcore surfer, shaper, musician and founder of the Honolua Bay Advisory Council. He constantly combs the area and picks up trash, which he continues to look for as we check the surf.
After some wishful thinking about the waves, Potts and I talk story about what may soon become the largest real estate transaction in Maui's recent history—Maui Land and Pineapple Co.'s Honolua/Lipoa Point Conservation Plan.
Many tides ago, ML&P's conservation plan included 40 luxury homes and an 18-hole golf course as integral components of their vision to "manage" Honolua Bay. However, intense community opposition inspired the company to withdraw their original conceptual plan.
ML&P returned to the drawing board with input from the Honolua Point Advisory Council, the Save Honolua Coalition and Maui County officials to create another conservation plan for the world-class surf spot. Their new proposal involves the creation of the Lipoa Conservation Trust, a public/private trust that would be expected to create an endowment of public funds to manage a 255-acre parcel of Lipoa Point, donated by ML&P.
Additionally, ML&P proposes to dedicate 3,000 acres of their land into a conservation easement. This land includes five miles of shoreline north of windmills as well as lands in both Honolua and Honokahau valleys.
"To me, this is a golden opportunity and we should not pass on this deal," says Potts. "Without this conservation easement, there could be houses on the shoreline all the way to Nakalele. Plus, this public/private trust secures the kind of access we want to keep. None of the surfers want picnic tables and concrete steps and that's what would happen if this point were deeded to the county."
Our conversation quickly jumps back into the water and the rising wind swell. Potts thinks it's ironic that two surfers are overlooking the ocean and discussing real estate and development. He's from a time when surfers were truly counterculture and such discussions were left to landlubbers and yuppies. After some unreal stories about his days in the late '60s on the North Shore, I couldn't help but wish that I grew up during those simpler times. Surfers often traded words and fists while competing for waves, but they weren't fighting multi-million dollar corporations like ML&P, a company traded on the New York Stock Exchange.
I thanked Potts for his efforts, promised to attend the August 6 public information meeting, and pulled my rickety truck out of the fields. Through my rearview mirror, I saw Potts collecting empty beer bottles where pineapples once sprouted.
"I thought we would all be heard here tonight. Some of us have things to say. And some of us no can read, no can write. Why do we have to write our questions down on a piece of paper?" asks a concerned citizen after the moderator explains the meeting format. President of the Save Honolua Coalition, Kahu David Kapaku, tells the man that the format has been decided and advises him to seek assistance from someone nearby. Kapaku assures all of us that every voice matters, that we're all in this process together, and we all join hands for his opening prayer.
After his blessing, Kapaku jokingly says, "Oh and by the way. If we should have any problems here tonight, the police department is just across the way." Although a portion of the audience breaks into laugher, I don't think he's entirely joking.
The project, presented by the Save Honolua Coalition, is titled "One Plan, One Pulse." The goal is to "maintain open space, public access, and revitalize the ecosystem of Honolua Ahupua`a through community based management utilizing Hawaiian values and practices."
However, when it comes time for ML&P's presentation of "One Plan, One Pulse," it seems that the company actually has several plans for the area. In exchange for the 255 acres directly adjacent to the bay, ML&P is asking for 212 acres of land mauka of Lipoa Point to be zoned "Important Ag Land." They are also asking for all Transient Vacation Rental (TVR) restrictions to be lifted from the Kapalua Mauka Project. And they want zoning changes to allow for a 60-room boutique hotel within Kapalua Mauka.
Kapalua Mauka is a long-term development directly above the current resort. The project finally won approval in 2006 after county officials debated with ML&P about the need for more affordable housing units within the project. Upon approval, a percentage of the 690 planned units are supposed to be affordable but the lift on TVR restrictions within the resort would negate the affordable housing clause of their agreement. ML&P contends they will still be offering affordable housing in their Pulelehua project, another company development currently awaiting county approval.
"It's always a shell game with ML&P," says Lucienne de Naie, Statewide Chair of Sierra Club Hawaii and candidate for Maui County Council. "Who really knows what their plans are with this deal? I think it's great that the surfers and citizens of this community were actually able to get this company to listen to them and design some sort of conservation plan. But we need to keep in mind that this company has a history of quickly changing their plans without any warning. They closed their Kahului cannery and laid off 120 employees in June of 2007, claiming they would shift focus to their more profitable fresh pineapple operations in West Maui. Only a year later, they've laid off 274 more employees, the majority of them from fresh pineapple operations."
ML&P spokesperson Teri Freitas Gorman blames the recent job losses on the economy. "With the current economy, and the cheaper cost of producing pineapple elsewhere in today's world market, revenue from our real estate gains have just not been able to offset the tremendous cost we incur harvesting pineapple on Maui."
Gorman says the company has "seen solid losses over the past 13 quarters." But, she adds, "anybody who really takes a look at ML&P's history will see that we have done more than any other company to save pineapple production in Hawaii."
"I'm not saying ML&P has not done a lot of good for this island in the past," says de Naie. "And I know times are tough. But recently, with such quick and drastic changes, to me it is clear that ML&P's current leadership has a real lack of integrity."
One part of ML&P's Lipoa Point deal that remains unclear is the 212 acres they want zoned under a new Important Ag Land law. Several people at the August 6 meeting ask ML&P Property Manager Kalani Schmidt to clarify the ramifications of this zoning.
"We're not exactly sure how this new law will be applied yet," says Schmidt. "There are some restrictions on subdivisions, but development is still possible, though much more restricted." The audience breaks into scattered groans and whispers as Schmidt tries to explain ML&P's justification behind "One Plan, One Pulse."
"We can't afford to just give the land away," she says. "We want to preserve Honolua Bay but we also have stockholders to think about here, so we must preserve the bay while creating value for our company. If this deal should go through, we also need to be sure that the trust secures finances needed to manage the area far into the future. And please keep in mind that this is not an open-ended deal."
As the setting sun draws shadows on the Lahaina Civic Center, panel and audience members inside are becoming exhausted contemplating the future uncertainties Maui will face in the effort to save Honolua Bay. The night hasn't been a loss or a victory for anyone, but rather a view into the stark reality of a dwindling island economy, a corporation's bottom line and the unknown fate of a world-class wave.
Shortly before the closing prayer, Kahu David Kapaku tells the assembled crowd that "this is the first of many more conversations. But we as a community need to trust this plan."
Afterwards, I speak with Councilmember Jo Anne Johnson about the deal. "I can clearly understand why there is a lot of mistrust from the public right now," she says. "ML&P has shown a lack of continuity and follow-through on several of their projects. But we need to sit down with them and figure all of this out. We need to address several issues, ask some tough questions and make sure all parties are held accountable for their end of the deal. This dedication of their lands should be in perpetuity and it should be irrevocable in order to have concessions on their Kapalua Mauka project."
Perhaps ML&P's Lipoa point deal really is a legitimate attempt to take care of this priceless land. Maybe they can mend some broken promises by honoring some new ones. My greatest wish is that ML&P will start feeling the way Les Potts feels: "Once you start taking care of the 'aina, you just can't stop."
But I'm thinking ML&P is more concerned with selling the 'aina than taking care of it. And I'm wondering where it will stop. MTW
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