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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Kailua High land exchange in doubt

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer

PUBLIC MEETING

What: Board of Education

When: 3:30 p.m. tomorrow

Where: Baldwin High School, Wailuku, Maui

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A developer's proposal to put 525 residential units on a 73-acre state parcel where Kailua High School now sits after swapping the land for a new high school on the slopes of Mount Olomana faces increasing questions from Board of Education officials, some of whom say the whole idea should be dropped.

After raising a number of problems with the proposed site for the new school including its irregular terrain and conservation zoning a report by the school board committee looking into the land swap offer recommends not going ahead with any public hearing and referring any further action to the full board.

Committee member Herbert Watanabe, who helped investigate the proposal, favors letting the land swap die. But committee chairman Paul Vierling's committee report suggests referring it instead to the Legislature.

"It would not be accurate to say the project is dead," maintains Vierling.

The BOE will consider the proposal at its public meeting tomorrow on Maui.

The committee has been considering a proposal by developer Christopher Dey to give the Department of Education 97 acres of conservation land above Kalaniana'ole Highway, plus $70 million toward construction of a new high school in exchange for the land where the present school sits.

The proposal, when it was made public in September, received mixed reaction from neighbors of the two sites some criticizing it, others praising the idea and some wanting more information.

Among the concerns were that the project would add more traffic to the Pohakupu subdivision and negate years of efforts to preserve the slopes of Olomana.

According to the committee report, for the project to go forward the DOE would have to receive approval and permits to build a new school on the 97 acres of conservation land owned by Dey, while Dey's company, Sound Investments LLC, must receive approval and permits for the residential units.

COMPARING COSTS

Because Kailua High is more than 50 years old, the committee agreed it needs major renovations or rebuilding, and compared the costs of rebuilding at the current site with building a new school at the proposed site to help evaluate the plan.

According to Watanabe, the Dey proposal is a no-win situation because it would cost the state $80 million or $90 million above Dey's offer to build on the proposed new site. He said estimates to build on the sloping terrain of the conservation land are $150 million or more, with $10 million more needed to upgrade the access road.

"How are we going to ask the Legislature for another $80 million or more, let alone having to put in a parking lot and wastewater treatment?" Watanabe asked.

By comparison, the cost of rebuilding on the current site, plus some adjacent state land, would be $50 million to $75 million, according to chairman Vierling.

"Yes, we need to update our schools," Watanabe said, "but are we willing to spend that kind of money for this one school when there are other needs, too? If you're going to ask for another $80 million to build this, why not rebuild the school we have? And you have all the infrastructure there."

Dey said he and his wife are noncommittal.

"All along our position has been 'Look, here's what we think is a really great opportunity for public discussion for the communities of Kailua and Waimanalo,' " he said.

"If it's something the BOE is interested in we'd be glad to work with them on it. And if it's not, that's OK, too. It's perfectly fine with us."

Kailua High School was built in the 1950s, and Watanabe said it's far from the oldest school in the DOE system. Others, built in the 1920s and 1930s, probably should be considered first for any rebuilding, he said.

Vierling's investigative committee raised several issues with the site, including drainage and problems building on the sloping land, access from Kalaniana'ole highway, upgrades to the road, the need to bus more children and its conservation zoning.

In a letter to Vierling, state Schools Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto also raised a concern that the proposal may not conform to legal requirements that call for an exchange of lands of equal or close to equal value.

"The lands being offered by Sound Investments are currently assessed at a value of $213,000," Hamamoto wrote.

"The current assessment of the three parcels of state land (approximately 73 acres) that Sound Investments wants to acquire is $14.2 million."

ZONING A CONCERN

Hamamoto also expressed concern whether the DOE could get "full entitlements to build on a site with a conservation easement and within the conservation district."

A letter from state Department of Land and Natural Resources chairman Peter Young raised issues over the land's current zoning, with Young noting that there was "obvious intent" that the conservation easement should remain on the property in perpetuity.

He said it was his understanding "that the conservation easement was supported by community sentiment that this area not be developed and that it instead be maintained in its natural state." But he also noted that this "does not bar any and all use of the property."

He suggested the DOE conduct public meetings to gauge community support of development of this area.

In his report, Vierling also noted that to get to a decision point would require a considerable investment, including an appropriation from the Legislature, to prepare an environmental impact statement and an application to the Land Use Commission to reclassify the 97 acres from conservation to urban.

Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.