LAHAINA – Maui Land & Pineapple Co. executives told Maui County Council members Wednesday night that the bad days are behind them and as soon as the housing market shows firm signs of improvement, they will be ready to move forward with long-planned developments, such as Pulelehua.
But first, they need the county to give them the land entitlements, said Ryan Churchill, ML&P president and chief operating officer.
However, Churchill was met with some skeptical members of the council’s Land Use Committee. Council Chairman Danny Mateo and Vice Chairman Mike Molina both pointed out that they went out on a limb five years ago to grant ML&P’s Kapalua Mauka development all the zoning and other land classification requirements it needed to move forward, but not one shovel of dirt has been turned on the project.
“It’s entitlement after entitlement after entitlement, but where’s the product?” Mateo asked after the Pulelehua update meeting that drew about 30 people to the Lahaina Civic Center.
In the past, meetings about Pulelehua have attracted hundreds of residents seeking one of the affordable homes in the development. The 882-unit, $400 million development would be built on 310 homes. Churchill said that with the economy still hurting, he doesn’t expect to be able to break ground for another 2 1/2 years. But when construction gets under way, the project will employ hundreds of construction workers for about 10 years. That doesn’t include other jobs once Pulelehua is completed, such as janitors, retail employees and landscapers.
But, in the meantime, the more than 100-year-old Maui company – which recently successfully sold common stock and its Bay Course at Kapalua to help dig out of debt – needs a zoning change, amended community plan and new project district to justify investing in Pulelehua’s design phase, Churchill said.
“It’s too much of a risk” to invest any more money in the project without the council-approved land entitlements, he said. The land is designated for agricultural use and would need to be changed to West Maui Project District 5. The West Maui Community Plan also would need to be changed to accommodate plans to create 136 acres of open space and 26 acres of parks. In addition, Pulelehua’s plans call for building a new elementary school, with the company pledging to commit $2.4 million toward construction.
The Land Use Committee members did not set a date for when they might take up Pulelehua again. They last discussed it more than two years ago.
Those who attended the meeting appeared to be split for and against it. Young families said they need jobs and homes. Other residents worried the development was too close to the airport or that the former sugar cane and pineapple fields were polluted.
The company has already paid for an environmental impact statement, which found no significant problems, including no archaeological finds on the land. The state Land Use Commission accepted the environmental study in 2005.
The Federal Aviation Administration also has cleared the project. And ML&P noted that the airport only handles about nine flights a day, and those are all daytime commuter flights – no private planes, jets, helicopters or night flights.
But Council Member Jo Anne Johnson, who holds the West Maui residency seat, said she objects to the logic of placing a school next to an airport. She also said the airport has been much busier in the past, and Johnson would like to see it used more heavily. That probably won’t happen if the airport is hemmed in by a housing development, she said.
Several council members expressed a lack of confidence in the company’s financial stability, since it divested itself from pineapple growing over the past few years and lost much of its liquidity, making it essentially a land holdings and resort venture.
Company officials noted that ML&P might own almost 24,000 acres on Maui, but 96 percent of it remains dedicated to agriculture or conservation.
“Do you really have the financing (for Pulelehua) because you haven’t built any of Kapalua Mauka?” asked Council Member Wayne Nishiki.
Churchill said the company would be able to pay for Pulelehua by partnering with financial institutions, homebuilders and buyers. He also said ML&P is also in a better debt situation than a lot of other developers on Maui.
Churchill said the company got blindsided in 2008 with the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, which was the main investor in ML&P’s $300 million Residences at Kapalua project. But rather than abandon it, ML&P leveraged its own financing to keep the project afloat, and the company was one of the only developers on Maui to continue with a such an ambitious project during the recession, he said.
Company officials are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, he said, and ML&P is diligently working to make sure that it is ready to go when the housing market improves.
The company still employs about 200 people, noted Patricia Nishiyama of the community advocacy group Na Kupuna O Maui.
“We also need jobs,” she said. “Please help our island people and our children.”
Many residents say they work in tourism-related businesses but can’t afford to purchase homes in West Maui. Instead, they often rent or buy homes in Central Maui and commute to West Maui, a few testifiers said.
One of the project’s selling points is that by keeping workers as residents on the west side it would reduce traffic on the often-congested pali, where a brush fire or traffic accident can close access for hours.
Churchill said ML&P has committed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward the Lahaina bypass project and would devote another $1 million toward traffic mitigation since Pulelehua would connect to Honoapiilani Highway in three places.
“These workers over here need to work in the community where they live,” said West Maui resident and charter boat operator David Rockett. “Right now, they think, ‘Geez, I’m gonna have to work my first two hours (of the day) just to pay for gas back and forth.'”