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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Sunday, September 19, 2004

New mood kills Kona project

By Kevin Dayton
Advertiser Big Island Bureau

KAILUA, Kona, Hawai'i — Developers have been pushing for new projects along the crowded Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway north of Kailua, and last week the community pushed back.

Keauhou resident John Buckstead, left, and Kailua resident Carol Fedman hand out fliers urging motorists stuck in traffic on the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway to oppose a proposed hotel development.

Advertiser library photo • February 2004

A crowd of more than 180 people pressured the Big Island County Council to kill a major proposed commercial and hotel development there. They heckled supporters of the development, and finally convinced most of the council to vote to bury the project proposed by Clifto's Kona Coast LLC.

That angry crowd and the council vote may signal a sea change in the development atmosphere north of Kona at a time when the real estate market is sizzling and more projects are planned for the area.

John Ray, president of the Hawai'i Leeward Planning Conference, said major landowners watched with "a lot of apprehension" as the Clifto's project was vetoed by Big Island Mayor Harry Kim, and council members last week refused to override Kim's veto.

County Planning Director Chris Yuen said developers should be concerned. He said the handling of the project was a turning point for the county, with Kim refusing to approve Clifto's because it relied on still-tentative state plans to widen the highway.

The highway has been at capacity since 1998, and it isn't clear when the state will begin widening it near the airport. A widening project for Queen Ka'ahumanu closer to Kailua is scheduled to begin next year.

From now on, developers with plans that would increase the traffic on Queen Ka'ahumanu "are either going to have to wait, or build something that is going to help alleviate the situation," Yuen said.

Cliff M. Morris, the managing member of Clifto's, promised to put up $750,000 to pay for planning and other work on the Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway widening project to try to speed the project along to offer some relief from traffic jams.

He pledged to turn over a half-mile-long strip of choice beachfront property to the county for a new park, and promised to provide 78 affordable housing units as part of the project, which is twice the amount of affordable housing normally required.

That wasn't good enough for residents furious about the daily traffic jams on the highway. They worried the Clifto's development would dump even more cars on the commuter thoroughfare, and wanted nothing to do with the project.

"Just stop any more rezoning, stop any more construction, and let's just catch up with what we've got," Kailua View Estates resident Dan Olson told the council last week.

Project defeated

The council finally voted 5-4 against overriding Kim's veto of the project. Clifto's was seeking permission to put 390 apartments and condominiums, about 392,000 square feet of retail and commercial space and a 250-room airport hotel on 83 acres north of Kailua.

Morris estimated the total construction cost for the project would have been $160 million to $180 million.

Killing Clifto's hardly solves the traffic problem. Yuen estimated that landowners along the corridor from Kailua to the airport already have the zoning they need to build up to 1,500 new housing units, which would further clog the highway even if the council refused to grant any new rezoning requests.

More projects are on the way. One of the largest is Hiluhilu Development LLC, which is owned by Charles Schwab and local contractor Guy Lam, and is seeking permission to develop 725 acres mauka of the airport.

That project, now known as Palamanui, would include space for a long-sought new Kona campus for the University of Hawai'i, a golf course, 825 homes and about 120 hotel units, said Guido Giacometti, the owners' representative.

Closer to Kailua, the state is considering proposals to redevelop 350 acres in the Honokohau Harbor area, and the Queen Lili'uokalani Trust is also making plans to develop lands the trust owns in the area.

Giacometti said the Palamanui developers are well aware of the public concerns about traffic from Kailua to the airport, and said the existing zoning for the Palamanui property requires the developer to build a mauka-to-makai road from Mamalahoa Highway to Queen Ka'ahumanu Highway.

That new road should help, and Giacometti said the developer hopes the Palamanui project will be better received than Clifto's was.

Ray, who was a county council member in the 1990s, said studies done years ago warned that Kona was headed for major traffic and other problems, "but really, nothing happened" to head off the problems. Ray's organization now represents major Big Island landowners.

Pushing development

Ray doesn't blame the local government entirely because the county was in an economic slump at the time. That meant there was little county money available to cope with the looming infrastructure problems, and there was political pressure on the council to push new development to get the economy moving again.

"Instead of concentrating on catching up, we were concentrating on giving entitlements but falling further and further behind" on road and other public facilities improvements need to serve the new development, Ray said.

Now there is not nearly enough state, county or federal money available to solve the problem, Ray said. He contends the only way to catch up is to approve new developments, tapping the developers for money and other help, and combine those contributions with state and county resources to speed up the necessary highway and other improvements.

Without the new projects, Ray believes the county will never catch up.

The Kona crowd openly mocked Ray when he made those same points to the council, and observers such as Sierra Club spokesman David Frankel are skeptical.

"The development community always says if you allow more development to proceed, our problems will be solved," Frankel said. "But history shows that the more development we allow, the more infrastructure problems we face."

Frankel and Yuen both say the long-term solution is to require developers to build more affordable housing close to jobs so that working people don't need to commute long distances.

Reach Kevin Dayton at kdayton@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 935-3916.

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