Driving up the Koolau coast to Malaekahana’s famous rural camping grounds from Kahaluu, it’s impossible to miss the dozens of large signs and banners hung along Kamehameha Highway. “Soon… no more country,” reads one; “What a pity, another city,” reads another; “keep the country, country.”
It’s a sentiment that has become popular with folks all over the island—my roommate’s used Volvo has a “keep the country, country,” bumper sticker on it that’s got to be more than a decade old—but it’s been a predominant principle for the residents of Koolau Loa’s small, coastal towns for much longer than that.
Through a (now) more than 15-year process, these small communities determined that this principle should be a major factor built into the Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan (KLSCP)—the guide to how this region of Oahu ought to evolve during the next few decades. But in 2010, the large-scale development project commonly referred to as Envision Laie, which would develop rural Malaekahana, found its way into the KLSCP and has been causing division in the Koolau Loa community ever since.
The Honolulu City Council’s zoning committee will meet on Thursday, March 5, and its chair, Ikaika Anderson, said last week that he intends to introduce amendments to city bill 47. Bill 47 was introduced in 2013 to give the go-ahead on the current version of the KLSCP, including Envision Laie. Anderson says his amendments would remove the elements of the Envision Laie plan that would move the existing urban growth boundary to allow for development of Malaekahana. Anderson told the Independent that he was unsure how his fellow committee members would vote on the proposed amendments.
The plan also calls for upgrades to the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) and Brigham Young University (BYU)—both managed by Hawaii Reserves Inc. (HRI), the for-profit wing of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church)—as well as in Laie proper and Kahuku. Anderson’s amendments wouldn’t affect those parts of the project.
The Envision Laie project, which is funded by the Mormon Church, calls for the construction of 875 new housing units, an adjacent light-industrial park, a shopping center, a school and the other associated community needs that will have to be built such as support infrastructure like roads and sewers, on what is now open land in Malaekahana. Such development would, essentially, link the towns of Laie and Kahuku, creating one large town.
Opponents contend that this development flies in the face of much of the original intent of the KLSCP, which included environmental protection, historic and cultural preservation and maintenance of the region’s rural, “old Hawai‘i” feel and individual community identities.
The Independent asked Anderson if he considered the Malaekahana development to be a “good faith honoring of the keep the country, country sentiment of this community?”
“How is it certain that the keep the country, country mantra is the true sentiment of this entire community?” he replied. “That said, I believe it is indeed fact that the Malaekahana development sections of Envision Laie certainly do not reflect a keep the country, country mantra. I personally have very grave concerns about allowing any additional development in Malaekahana, as I remain unconvinced that such further development in this area is pono.”
The Independent reached out to each of the other city council members as well, including Ernie Martin who actually represents the Koolau Loa region. None of the other council members elected to answer the question (Trevor Ozawa confessed he was not familiar enough with the topic yet, having been elected only last fall, and Carol Fukunaga said she would let Anderson answer instead as he chairs the zoning committee).
Not surprisingly, Koolau Loa residents who are members of the Mormon Church (who mostly reside in Laie and Kahuku) oppose Anderson’s amendments, while residents outside of the church are coming out in support.
The larger Oahu General Plan, which outlines the ways in which Oahu’s eight regions are to continue evolving in the next few decades, does call for some development to meet housing demands, but only in the Ewa region and the “urban core” of Honolulu, not in Koolau Loa. On top of that, the Oahu plan calls for rresidents of the different Oahu communities to—for the most part—determine for themselves the direction in which they want their community development to go.
In honoring that principle, the version of the plan that was passed by the city in 1999 deals with land use policies and infrastructure under the general framework of maintaining the “region’s rural character and its natural, cultural, scenic and agricultural resources.” According to the plan, “The region will remain country, characterized by small towns and villages with distinct identities that exist in harmony with the natural settings of mountain ridges and winding coastline.”
In 2009, a 26-member Plan Advisory Committee comprised of representatives from the different Koolau Loa towns confirmed that, a decade later, the majority of the region’s residents still felt the same way. The PAC voted to recommend that the proposed Envision Laie projects by left out of the KLSCP.
In fact, up until the KLSCP found itself in the hands of the city Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) in 2010, Malaekahana was always listed as one of the areas between communities that should remain open and undeveloped—partly to protect the identities of the two adjacent towns (Kahuku and Laie) and partly to prevent sprawl and town-to-town development.
The fact that the Envision Laie project was inserted into the KLSCP, ignoring the majority sentiment of the very community the KLSCP is supposed to represent, has been a major factor in the divisiveness of the issue.
“What we want is the plan that was originally created,” Kaaawa resident Brian Walsh told the Independent before a previous zoning committee hearing. “That is sustainable. That is community. This is not. The current plan is not what most of the community outside Laie wants but, if it passes, the consequences will affect all of us.”
“The draft Koolauloa Sustainable Communities Plan does not reflect the needs of the majority of residents and communities of Koolauloa,” wrote the Defend Oahu Coaltion in a statement. “Laie Developer HRI … circumvented public process and forced massive expansion plans for BYU, PCC and Malaekahana into the draft. The developer at Turtle Bay Resort also met behind closed doors with DPP and successfully pushed through an untimely and unsustainable expansion plan calling for five additional hotels and 1,000 additional condominiums. According to the KLSCP’s vision statement for the region (Chapter 2-1) the plan ‘seeks to preserve the region’s rural character and its natural, cultural and scenic resources.’ In its current draft form, the plan will not maintain that vision.”
The Kahaluu Neighborhood Board passed a resolution in opposition to Bill 47 back in 2013, as did the Kailua and Manoa Neighborhood Boards. The Kaaawa, Hauula Punaluu and even the Laie Point community associations are all opposed to Bill 47 as well.
For their part, Envision Laie supporters are also mobilizing for Thursday’s hearing, even offering round-trip shuttle rides to Honolulu from the BYU so they can get more testifiers into the hearing.