Launiupoko land purchase explained
LAHAINA – The Maui County Council recently voted to move forward with the purchase of 185 acres of open space land mauka of Honoapiilani Highway in Launiupoko. I voted to support this motion, although I was disappointed in what had been offered. I appreciate the many communications that I have received from my constituents regarding this issue.
This was a difficult decision. I strongly support preservation of open space and park lands in this location and throughout Maui County. The “take it or leave it” deal presented to the council by the administration and the land owner (Makila Land Co.) was a far cry from the Parkway Plan discussed in past planning documents and community meetings. This creates a confusing process.
Some history: the Pali to Puamana Parkway planning concept has been reviewed for over a decade. The West Maui Community Plan (1996) directs us to move sections of Honoapiilani Highway south of Puamana mauka, out of the inundation zone, and preserve any lands makai of the new alignment as park and open space.
We have had a Pali to Puamana (P2P) community task force (2005), Master Plan (2005) and a 2008 Environmental Assessment (EA). Each recommended a preferred alignment and map for the mauka highway and proposed preservation area.
The current preservation configuration that we were asked to fund was not recommended in these studies.
The present highway realignment route is based on a newer 2012 EA for the “Relocation-of-Lahaina-Bypass-Southern-Terminus.” This study, generously commissioned and funded by Makila Land Co., rejected the preferred 2008 P2P EA road alignment.
Unlike the 2008 P2P EA, the 2012 EA considered only where the highway should be relocated and included no specific mention or map of any future parkway or preserve area.
The 2012 EA concluded that once the bypass was completed, “Opportunities for increasing coastal recreation areas in the area can be further explored.” To me, this is not what our West Maui Community Plan specifies, and it is not what I hear the public asking for. This is not how our “gateway to Lahaina” should be planned.
Two reasons why this matters: first, the West Maui Community Plan specifies that all the lands (311 acres) between the proposed mauka realignment and the existing Honoapiilani Highway be protected. The current Launiupoko purchase will only preserve about half of the lands that we want to protect.
Looking uphill from Honoapiilani Highway to the new bypass, we will see 148 acres of open space from Kai Hele Ku Street to the Olowalu transfer station (along 1.25 miles of coastline), but heading north from Kai Hele Ku Street to Puamana Beach Park, we will see a new 165-acre, 11-lot ag subdivision with a narrow greenway strip between the “ag estates” and the high cement wall along the existing highway. That 38-acre strip will be our only preserve for the next 1.25 miles.
The only way to actually protect all of the mauka lands will be for the county to condemn the lands and then pay the appraised price. This option is not on the table at this time.
Second, what’s on the table is a financial compromise, but I am not confident it makes good planning sense. The smallest preserve area (38 acres) has to buffer many potential impacts. At the bottom of a long slope, the narrow strip is the receiving area for five natural drainage basins. The new bypass will generate enough runoff to require nine new drain pipes and several large box culverts. The tsunami zone in this same stretch is shown extending mauka past the existing Honoapiilani Highway.
Reliable planning would seem to call for a much wider preserve zone along this mile of shoreline. Actually, the P2P Master Plan and 2008 EA showed a preserve area extending 400 feet or more mauka in this area. The “compromise” that came before the council ignored the recommended alignment.
It is not difficult to understand why the landowners proposed the new road alignment and preserve areas; the 2008 P2P, Honoapiilani Highway Launiupoko preferred realignment route would have cut through 11 of the 18 ag lots in the proposed Makila Ranch Phase II and Phase III subdivisions. The new alignment only cuts through three of the lots. Coincidentally, the three lots are part of the seven lots that were proposed to the council for purchase, so no future private property values will be affected.
During the course of the council’s deliberations, there was a lot of misleading and erroneous information presented to the people of Maui County.
Some common inaccuracies include that the land is located on the ocean side of the current highway. This is possibly due to the fact that the land was constantly referred to as “beach front” or as “coastline.” It’s also due to the fact that the administration posted a video of the ocean side of the highway, rather than the mountain- side of the highway, when they released their public poll.
This is not the case. The county and state own everything ocean side on this stretch of Honoapiilani Highway. There was never any fear of having development remove our beach/ocean access, or view plane.
Another inaccurate statement was: “We have the money; we should just buy it.” In fact, we only have about half of the money available for the land purchase. The other half is being borrowed through a bond and will be paid back over what could be 20 years (adding interest to what we owe).
Another error is, “If we didn’t buy this land by the deadline of Dec. 31, we would have lost it forever.” The land would not have been lost to development if we did not take the deal. This belief is not taking into consideration that if we allowed the current deal to lapse, and the developer was not willing to renegotiate with the county, we would have had the option to purchase the land at “fair market value” through the condemnation process.
Condemnation is the process of taking private property under the power of Eminent Domain. It is the right of government or assignors to take private property or have an easement on private property for the greater good of the public. The key of Eminent Domain is that the taking must be proven to be for the greater good of the public.
The goal of the condemnation process and Eminent Domain law is to protect the private property owner’s interests by keeping them “whole” through the process. The protection is set forth in the 5th and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. Keeping them “whole” means that the private property owner should receive just compensation for their losses of both property and damages caused by the taking to the remaining property (if any).
The administration has alluded to the fact that condemnation would be too costly for the county due to attorney fees and associated litigation costs. This is not the case. We have our own paid attorneys that work for us (the Corporation Counsel).
The compensation offered and paid to the land owner will not include attorney’s fees and costs. The Hawaii Supreme Court has held that the “just compensation” and damages” required by the Hawaii Constitution to be offered and paid to property owners whose land is taken does not include attorney’s fees and costs the landowner incurs if the property is taken. State v. Davis, 53 Haw. 582, 587, 499 P.2d 663, 687-88 (1972).
However, there are tax benefits that can be gained through the condemnation process that benefit the land owners.
Many questions remain…
Did the 185-acre land purchase satisfy our long-range planning goals? Were the taxpayers offered a fair price for the land?
While I do feel that it was necessary for the county to act, I also believe that the people are entitled to better negotiated options, and that the council under less pressure could have given the people what they wanted and deserved.
As the council, it is our job to look into these issues with great detail and scrutiny. Anything less would be a disservice to the seats that we hold in office. It is my sincere hope that the people of West Maui understand the well-intentioned work that I was doing on their behalf.
Like most, I think it makes good planning sense to protect as much undeveloped land as possible and especially along the “gateway to West Maui.”
We need to avoid more shoreline hardening along Honoapiilani Highway, and allow the road to move out of the hazard zone, while protecting traditional use and access.
We need to set aside open space to expand our existing beach parks, leave large buffer zones to absorb drainage impacts from mauka developments, and help control traffic impacts by limiting development density in the coastal areas.
Moving forward, these preferred standards are the objective.