State land use panel rejects plan for 12,000 homes on Ewa farms
POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Aug 29, 2009
In a rare move, the state Land Use Commission rejected yesterday a developer’s push to urbanize 1,500 acres of prime agricultural land in Ewa to create a new community of nearly 12,000 homes.
The commission voted 5-3 to declare the petition by D.R. Horton-Schuler Division "deficient," saying the developer had not followed the rules by spelling out an incremental development plan for its Ho’opili project. But it said Horton could fix its petition and try again.
"Hallelujah!" Kioni Dudley, president of Friends of Makakilo and leader of the opposition, declared after the vote. "It’s a great victory. It’s a victory for the aina. I hope the setback to the developer is permanent."
Dudley had some powerful support at yesterday’s hearing, including the state Office of Planning, which argued forcefully against the project, and the heads of the state Transportation and Agriculture departments. The commissioners also heard hours of testimony from members of the public, most of them pleading to keep the land growing fruits and vegetables for local consumption.
"This is arguably the best agricultural land in the state," said Richard Valasek, a nurse who lives in Aiea. "Once it’s gone, it’s gone."
But that wasn’t the deciding factor in yesterday’s vote.
The decision hinged on the failure of the developer to submit a detailed plan showing the timing, phasing and location of each step of the development. Such a plan is required if a project cannot be completed within 10 years. The Ho’opili project, which is the size of another Mililani or Hawaii Kai, would take 20 years to build. "The petitioner has repeatedly refused to provide an incremental development plan," said Bryan Yee, attorney for the Office of Planning. "By allowing them to go forward, you will establish a horrible precedent for any developer to violate the rules and then be forgiven."
After the hearing, Mike Jones, Horton’s president, vowed not to give up. "Obviously we’re disappointed in the decision," Jones said. "It’s a temporary setback at this point in time. We plan to go back and work with the parties."
"I think it’s important right now for us to plan for the future of Hawaii, for future job growth and local housing," Jones said. "It’s probably the best place on Oahu for that, with what’s going on with UH-West Oahu and transportation."
The project area lies between Waipahu and Kapolei, makai of the H-1 freeway. Although designated as agricultural by the state, the land falls within the urban growth boundary of the city’s Ewa Development Plan. The city’s rail transit project is slated to run through it, and the project would include 3 million square feet of commercial space, with higher densities along the rail corridor.
"It is all part of a decades-old plan to develop the secondary area," said Clyde Hayashi, director of the Hawaii Laborers and Employers Cooperation Education and Trust Fund. "It will provide needed homes in the second city along with jobs."
But Transportation Director Brennon Morioka said the developer needs to address the impacts of "the largest development in the state’s history."
"We’re concerned about the congestion that’s going to continue to grow on the H-1, and there are no proposals for mitigation by the petitioner," Morioka said. "We’ve been trying to work with the developer, and it’s been a challenge for us."
Yee warned that "if Ho’opili goes through, H-1 is going to be a parking lot from Waiawa to Makakilo."
Rep. Rida Cabanilla (D, Waipahu-Ewa) was one of several legislators opposing the project. She advised redeveloping Oahu’s urban core, rather than displacing farmland. In written testimony, Sandra Lee Kunimoto, chairwoman of the Board of Agriculture, also opposed the loss of highly productive lands.
The Ewa property, 14 percent of the available farmland on Oahu, is considered the best on the island, with ample sun, good irrigation and top-quality soil. It is leased to several farmers, the largest of which is Aloun Farms, and grows a substantial amount of the local supply of diversified crops such as sweet corn, beans, melons, pumpkins and lettuce.
Steven Lee Montgomery, a former Land Use Commissioner who testified against the project, drew laughter with his plea: "All I am saying is give peas a chance."
But Vernon Ta’a, a plumbers union representative, had a different take on it. He welcomed the homes and jobs the project would bring for his extended family.
"If there’s a choice between a tomato plant and my 13 grandchildren, no question, I would choose my grandchildren," he said. "They have to have a job. They have to have money to buy the tomato."
Horton filed its original petition in January 2007. After several months of hearings this year, the developer was ready to wrap up its case yesterday, which would have paved the way for the other side to make its arguments.
But Commissioner Reuben Wong moved to declare Horton’s petition deficient, noting that the developer had the right to "cure" the deficiencies. He was joined by commissioners Lisa Judge, Normand Lezy, Duane Kanuha and Vladimir Devens. Voting against the motion were Nicholas Teves, Kyle Chock and Ransom Piltz.
The developer cannot submit a new petition for at least 45 days. When it does, the yearlong clock on considering the project will begin again. Rather than starting entirely from scratch, the commissioners may decide to preserve some of the testimony already submitted on the project.