Proposed ‘Ewa development defies snap judgments
Sep 2, 2009
Last Friday’s daylong meeting of the State Land Use Commission, to rule on a petition by mega-developer D.R. Horton-Schuler to change the current zoning on 1,500 acres of prime ‘Ewa farmland from agriculture to mixed-use residential and commercial, was anything but boring.
Here’s Kioni Dudley, intervenor in the case, whom some have called the leader of the opposition: “In the beginning, over two years ago, this was just a gut feeling I had.” Now, it is more than a feeling, as Mr. Dudley–and everyone else with a sore gut over the proposed zone change–has picked up some unexpected allies, in the form of at least three State agencies and several local politicians.
Listen to Bryan Yee of the Attorney General’s office, speaking for the State Office of Planning: “We now know that if the petition [for the zoning change] goes through, H-I will be a parking lot from Waiawa to Makakilo. And the petitioner (Schuler) isn’t proposing any solutions.”
Or State Senator Clayton Hee: “I’m old enough to remember Waiahole-Waikane.” (The windward valleys were slated for a “second city”-sized development back in the early ’70s.) “That was a planned development too. Can you imagine what Waiahole and Waikane would look like today? We would have Hawaii Kai on the windward side.”
Hee went on to say that he co-sponsored a piece of legislation that proposed a 100-year moratorium on any changes to land currently zoned agricultural, in two senate districts. “Since it was (Senator) Bobby Bunda who was with me on the bill, it would have kept all the (ag land) from Kaneohe to Wahiawa as it is, in perpetuity. Hey, we knew it wouldn’t pass. But it was a sign of how important this issue is in this day and age that we had a couple of other senators actually sign on.”
It does make one wonder what it really means for a piece of land to be zoned agricultural. As it turns out, not much. The Hoopili acreage, for example, has never had another zoning designation. For decades the parcel was plowed and planted in cane by Oahu Sugar, the land owned, as was much of the ‘Ewa plain, by Campbell Estate (recently dissolved, and instantly reconstituted as James Campbell Company LLC, according to their website “a nationally diversified real estate company.”) A few years back Schuler Homes paid Campbell several hundred million for the parcel, with their eyes firmly focused on the city’s ‘Ewa Development Plan, which called for the ag-zoned Hoopili parcel to be eventually sown with 12,000 houses.
All the developer had to do was to get the State LUC to change the zoning, something they do all the time. No problem.
Not so fast. Enter Kioni Dudley. Makakilo resident and long time critic of ‘Ewa development, Dudley has intervenor status in the current LUC hearings. An intervenor, according to the Commission’s rules, can be any interested party from the public. The status brings remarkable power, as was evident during Friday’s meeting. Dudley can cross-examine the developer’s witnesses. He can call his own, which he plans to do at later meetings–people like business-friendly economist Paul Brubaker, who has labeled the plan “… an irreversible destruction of your ability to grow food”.
The Commissioners are required to allow Dudley to comment on nearly everything they do. It’s heady stuff, and it has given Dudley the time, he says, to slowly rally the troops against the project.
And most of the people who signed up to speak at Friday’s meeting did testify in opposition, although not all. Meet Maeda Timson, who is a member, along with Kioni Dudley of the Makakilo Neighborhood Board. Apparently they go way back. When Timson started into her defense of the development, Dudley immediately cut her off, claiming she was nothing but a paid mouthpiece for the developers, wooed to their camp by lavish dinners and other, unspecified perks. Timson shot back: “I still live in the same little house. Not like Mr. Dudley’s mansion up on the hill. If I was paid for all the time I’ve put in for my community, I’d be rich by now, not still living in my house.”
Timson pooh-poohed the traffic issue. “Traffic? There’s traffic right now. Hoopili will have at least one rail stop,” (referring to the City’s planned light rail project). “All the land where Kapolei now is was originally zoned Ag. Why stop at this last piece–when it’s all in the development plan already? The west side is already providing the electricity, the rubbish disposal (for all of Oahu). Now we’re responsible for the farm land too?”
The idea that Aloun Farms, which currently works the majority of the Ho’opili parcel, is somehow being summarily thrown off the land also strikes others as inaccurate. Al Lardizabal, who said he was just attending the meeting as an observer, pointed out that the farmers knew the lease they signed was for a short term. “They understood that something was going to happen to the land. I think we need to think long term. My son cannot afford a home in Hawaii. It’s a supply and demand thing. You either develop in ‘Ewa–or some other, less well-planned area.”
The enticing formula in which small farmers equals good, developers equals bad was also shaken a bit by something else going on across town on Friday morning, in U.S. District Court, something that suggested that perhaps D.R. Horton-Schuler Homes and Aloun Farms aren’t such different entities after all.
There really is a D.R. Horton. According to the company’s website, his name is Donald, and he was raised in Arkansas, the son of a cattleman/real estate broker. Donald moved to Texas as a young man, got a bank loan and built a spec-house. He sold the house. He got a bank loan to build two houses. He sold them. Thirty years later D.R. Horton, through its many acquisitions of smaller builders (like Schuler) is a big, publicly traded company that makes money the same way it always has: by covering the land with houses and spreading the profit among its stockholders.
The Sou brothers, who own Aloun Farms, are Laotian refugees who immigrated to the U.S. in 1977. They got their start in farming by leasing 5 acres in Waianae. Today they lease close to 3,000 acres, and run the second-biggest diversified crop operation in the state. On Friday morning they were indicted in Federal Court, on charges that they imported 44 Thai nationals and forced them to work for, well, pretty much nothing. The actual charges are “conspiracy to commit forced labor, visa fraud, and document servitude.” One could say the Sous make money the way they always have: by plowing up the land, reaping the harvest and keeping the profits for themselves.
But maybe that isn’t the point here. Could it be this isn’t about the individual players, about good guys or bad? Glenn Oamilda, who was standing out on Beretania Street on Friday holding a sign protesting the Hoopili project, put it this way: “It’s about two important things. Sustainability and balance. We’re not against development–it’s gonna happen. But you gotta control it, and deal with the impacts. And, if you live on this planet, you don’t get rid of the things that sustain you.”
In the end the LUC voted 5-3 to deny the developers (for now) their request for rezoning, by declaring the petition “deficient.” Kioni Dudley looked and sounded happy; Mike Jones of D.R. Horton-Schuler less so. Jones, however, did not seem ready to go home and cry in his beer over this temporary setback. In a brief conversation, he repeated the word “jobs” several times. And with jobs, a half-billion dollar investment and an army of lawyers lined up behind him, the smile on his face seemed quite genuine.