Coalition fights to keep Waikiki developer Kyo-Ya from bending the rules

Travis Quezon

HONOLULU—Demolition charges fired away as the towers of Las Vegas’ legendary Stardust Resort imploded in 2007 amidst a celebration of fireworks and song to make way for its successor: the $4 billion Echelon Place. It’s a common sight in “Sin City” to see a historic resort come down to be replaced by one that’s bigger and badder.

In Hawaii, not so much.

A $1 billion project proposed by Waikiki giant Kyo-Ya Hotels and Resorts would see the first beach-side resort to go up in the area in over three decades. Kyo-Ya also plans to add a new tower to the Princess Kaiulani hotel and destroy two smaller hotel buildings. And with the mega remodeling of the cityscape comes a firestorm of resistance to what community members say is just too big and too illegal.

The Kyo-Ya project would build a hotel that triples the height of the Moana Surfrider’s current Diamond Head Tower and, according to a coalition of non-profits fighting against the project, violates existing zoning laws and encroaches onto the public beach.

The City recently gave Kyo-Ya leeway in ignoring beach encroachment laws that were first set into motion in Waikiki over a century ago. On December 1, Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) director David Tanoue granted partial approval of a variance to allow Kyo-Ya’s 26-story hotel-and-condo tower and private swimming pool to be built directly on Waikiki Beach. The variance allows for a 60-foot encroachment into the 100-foot shoreline setback zone required by Waikiki Special District law.

On Monday, petitioners consisting of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends, the Surfrider Foundation, KAHEA, the Ka Iwi/Sandy Beach Coalition, and preservation advocate Michelle Matson filed an appeal to the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals.

“This variance disregards existing zoning laws and sets a dangerous precedent for a whole new round of beachfront development,” said Stuart Coleman, the Surfrider Foundation’s Hawaii Coordinator. “While other high-end hotels like the Halekulani have done an impressive job of abiding by the zoning laws, this kind of variance could allow Kyo-Ya and other developers to disregard the existing laws and make the same arguments for other hotels like the Royal Hawaiian’s beachside tower.”

To read the Kyo-Ya variance appeal case notes, click here

In its request for a variance, Kyo-Ya said it should be allowed to violate the existing height and shoreline setback requirements because they were made back in 1965, when the State promised to widen Waikiki beach by 180 feet. It hasn’t happened yet, and Waikiki loses about a foot to two feet of sand every year to erosion.

The petitioners point out that there is no guarantee that the State will ever find a way to effectively widen the beach. Also, a beach extension of 180 feet, or even 75 feet, hasn’t happened for 45 years, since 1965.

“The City was clear when it adopted the Waikiki Special District guidelines as law—no more towers on the beach,” said Donna Wong of Hawaii’s Thousand Friends.

The petitioners also argue that Kyo-Ya is not eligible for a variance under the City’s own rules.

“The DPP Director acknowledges in his analysis that the established coastal height setback requirement ‘effectively limits the building height to about 170 feet,’” said Matson, who also serves on the Diamond Head Neighborhood Board. “Yet in the absence of proving the hardships for granting a variance, he has arbitrarily approved the requested 26-story height of 308 feet, which exceeds the coastal height setback requirement by an additional 133 feet. This coastal height setback is a zoning ordinance regulation, separate and distinct from allowable ‘flexible options’ offered under other DPP guidelines.”

DPP has been asked to deny a request for these same variances before.

In August, the Honolulu City Council Zoning Committee testified in strong opposition to “flexibility options” requested by Kyo-Ya: “Clearly the requested PD-R ‘flexibility options’ altering the established Waikiki Special District regulations, and the associated requested zoning variance to compromise the coastal height limit requirement, are contrary to the larger public interest and the protection and preservation of the remaining human-scale shoreline backdrop for present and future generations.”

To read the Honolulu City Council Zoning Committee testimony against the variances, click here

It’s been an uphill battle for the Waikiki developer ever since they announced their expansion plans.

In June, about 100 hotel workers demonstrated against Kyo-Ya’s plans to redevelop the Moana Surfrider hotel because it meant replacing hotel rooms with condo and residential units, which require fewer union workers.

And in August, blogger Ian Lind reported that Kyo-Ya officials were lobbying hard to garner City approval of its redevelopment plans by being active in the failed gubernatorial campaign of then-Mayor Mufi Hannemann.

For Hawaii’s anti-development activists, it’s been a mountain worth climbing.

“Defending beaches is what we do, and Waikiki is certainly worth defending,” said Gary Weller of Ka Iwi/Sandy Beach Coalition. ”Kyo-Ya claims that they are denied ‘reasonable use of the land or building’ due to the current zoning conditions and the narrowness of the property. Yet they knew these facts when they purchased the property, which could be completely renovated without the need for a variance.”

Related Info

• In 1899, the Hawaii Supreme Court, in adopting the reasoning of the public trust doctrine case, Illinois Central R.R. v. Illinois, stated, “The people of Hawaii hold the absolute right to all its navigable waters and the soils under them for their own common use.”

• In 1927, Hawaii territorial Gov. Wallace Rider Farrington approved Act 273, which guaranteed that legal arrangements be made to assure the public’s right to use any portion of Waikiki beach 75 feet shoreward of the mean high water mark.

• On October 19, 1928, property owners at Waikiki signed the Waikiki Beach Reclamation Act—an agreement with the Territory of Hawaii to not build any obstructions on what would become Waikiki Beach. The agreement was to “forever thereafter keep the beach free and clear of obstructions and open for the use of the public as a bathing beach and for passing over and along the same on foot.”

• In 1968, the Hawaii Supreme Court defined public beaches “along the upper reaches of the wash of waves” and maintained that “public policy“ favors extending to the public use and ownership as much of Hawaii’s shoreline as is reasonably possible.”