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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, August 24, 2003

Nu'uanu development opposed

By James Gonser
Advertiser Urban Honolulu Writer

Barbara Perrine Chu and other Nu'uanu homeowners are fighting development on a hillside behind their properties because they fear it could cause large rocks to fall onto their houses.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Residents of Dowsett Highlands are banding together to oppose the development of homes on the mountainside above them, saying the risk of rockslides makes the steep area unsuitable for building.

The members of the Nu'uanu Valley Association believe new protections are needed to prevent construction in such areas, and they have appealed to government officials for help. In the meantime, they are rallying support and doing everything they can to block building in an area where they believe such activity will send boulders crashing down onto their homes.

The 50-acre parcel is in escrow, and developer Jon Gomes said residential zoning is in place that entitles him to proceed. He denied that the project will create any neighborhood hazards.

But residents say the zoning was approved decades ago. It was in place at least by the 1940s, long before a boulder crashed down a mountainside and into a home in Nu'uanu in 2002, killing a woman as she slept and calling attention to the danger of building close to ridges and mountains.

That death occurred just a half-mile from the property planned for development.

"I was blown away when I learned how many boulders come down," said Dowsett Highlands resident Barbara Perrine Chu. "They come down and kill somebody or hit a house. Boulders do fall now, but usually don't hurt anybody because there are trees in this buffer zone. If new homes are built, that will be gone."

This isn't the first time that residents have united to prevent development in the area.

The community association, which includes about 200 Nu'uanu Valley residents, was formed in the late '70s and waged a long court battle to stop a 96-lot subdivision on the same property. The association lost in its bid to down-zone the property from residential to preservation, but that development never happened.

Over the years the residents grew complacent, seeing the property as a natural buffer zone between their homes and falling boulders, some said. Then "for sale" signs began to appear, Chu said.

"Those of us who haven't lived here that long didn't know it was private property," said Chu, who moved into the neighborhood 14 years ago. "We just hiked up there. I just thought it was state land. A few months ago 'for sale' signs appeared and the old-timers remembered."

Residents quickly organized but learned that a sales transaction was moving ahead.

Gomes expects to pay about $6 million to purchase the parcel along a half-mile stretch on the east side of the valley above homes from Ragsdale Drive to Kamuela Place. Gomes wants to subdivide the property into 15 lots ranging in size from one to 11 acres and resell them to individual buyers.

"I wouldn't be building homes," Gomes said. "I'd just be selling lots."

Gomes said he will have a geological survey done on the property and share the results with neighbors to assure them the development will be safe.

Geologists say that because falling boulders will continue to be a problem in Hawai'i, having a buffer between homes and steep mountain walls is important.

Glenn Bauer, a geologist with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, said building on steep hillsides can have risks.

"If it changes the natural conditions, it could create problems," Bauer said. "I don't think construction should be on hillsides where there is a possibility of rocks from above the property coming down. Also changing the slope of the property that's being developed could adversely affect how rocks come down."

Bauer said he supports creating an area that is zoned as a buffer in steep areas.

"With all the old zoning laws, everybody is building right up the cliffs," Bauer said. "It doesn't make sense to me. I would think from the recent experiences that have been reported that (the city) would change the way they do their zoning.

"You always want to have some kind of setback or some place that if something comes down it will roll and then stop without going into somebody's house."

Nu'uanu residents say homes are built right up to that buffer zone and the proposed development area has a grade of between 30 percent and 70 percent, too steep for construction.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, D-26th (Punchbowl, Pacific Heights, Nu'uanu Valley), and City Council member Rod Tam have been meeting with residents and are considering introducing legislation that would require a buffer area on hillsides.

Stephen Martel, an assistant professor in the University of Hawai'i department of geology and geophysics, agrees that a buffer zone is a good idea, but said it is a complicated issue.

"There are societal issues that come into play," Martel said. "Property values, landowners, developers rights, property rights. A lot of people have a stake in this."

The Dowsett Highlands Trust owns the 50 acres in question, but its trustees declined to comment for this story. Chu and 179 of her neighbors sent a letter to the trust's representative, Akimi Mallin, on Aug. 5 saying they have concerns about safety, traffic congestion, sanitation and detrimental cultural and environmental effects if the property is developed.

"We are prepared to see to it that development does not proceed unless its impact is reduced to an acceptable level," the letter said.

Their primary concern is the possibility of rockfalls set off by construction or its after effects, but they say adding new water and sewage pipes will change the hydrology in the area and create instability.

In recent years, rockfalls from Nu'uanu to Waimanalo and the North Shore have closed roads, damaged cars and property, forced the evacuation of homes and prompted builders and the state to take measures to ensure safety.

In Nu'uanu, rocks fall regularly, though usually they don't cause major problems. That changed on Aug. 9, 2002, when a 5-ton boulder rolled down the ridge and crashed through a Henry Street home, killing 26-year-old Dara Rei Onishi.

Onishi's family filed a lawsuit in March against the owners of the up-slope property where they think the boulder originated. The suit says the property owners may have exacerbated the situation by moving large rocks during construction projects on the site.

In addition to the rockslide risk, there could be infrastructure problems regarding Gomes' development, some say.

Gomes said the existing infrastructure should be adequate for the number of houses he is planning. However, the city says the area's sewer system is overloaded, and the city has placed a moratorium on adding new homes to the line.

Councilman Tam said he will oppose the Gomes project until geological and infrastructure studies are done

Tam also has concerns about the city's liability if construction is allowed and asks whether residential zoning is still appropriate.

For the Dowsett Highlands residents, simply having a say in what happens in the neighborhood around them is a critical issue.

"We are saying we have legitimate concerns, and this is our neighborhood," Chu said. "We are saying we should be able to work out something where we all have a say in this, not just the landowner."

Reach James Gonser at jgonser@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2431.