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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 11:23 a.m., Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Looking back at 2007 on Maui

By Edwin Tanji
The Maui News City Editor

Click here to view The Maui News' top five stories of the year, chosen by the newspaper's staff writers and editors.

Getting a new County Council and a new mayor at the start of 2007 only proved that turning the ship of state is a slow process.

In her inauguration speech, Mayor Charmaine Tavares spoke of having the council and administration focus on common goals. Whatever the goals, there were few accomplished during a year marked by delays on programs and projects.

One of the accomplishments was achieved by groups outside the county government. Both Tavares and the council supported efforts to hold up the Hawai'i Superferry until an environmental assessment is prepared.

But it was a coalition of community organizations that won the Supreme Court ruling that the state Department of Transportation should have prepared an environmental assessment on the Hawai'i Superferry plans. Even that was quickly reversed by a state Legislature and a governor willing to bypass environmental laws to allow a $300 million business to proceed while an environmental impact statement is prepared.

In taking a new term as council chairman, Riki Hokama listed water and housing as top priorities for the county, but 360 days later, there has been one new law on water availability that may slow housing development and limited action to promote affordable housing.

Conditions imposed by a council committee on a low-rent apartment complex at Maui Lani prompted the developer to pull back the project plans as not financially feasible. When Kapalua homeowners objected to an employee housing project, Maui Land & Pineapple cut 16 units from the affordable housing project.

Promising to adhere to the county's Residential Workforce Housing Policy, Honua'ula offered to build 250 low-rent apartment units in Kihei but was told the county will not allocate water for the development.

Two investment groups planning condominium projects at Kamaole filed lawsuits in August challenging the requirements of the work force housing policy.

Between council and mayor, there was agreement on a $549.6 million county budget that includes an allocation to acquire a 28-acre Haiku site for a new fire station — but there was uncertainty over what the county will do with all of the land and some fears that it will encourage urbanization of the rural region.

There was action by the council on implementing the county Affordable Housing Fund, but it took six months of committee discussion.

That was quick work when compared to years of hearings and debate over the application for zoning for a revised Wailea 670 project district, renamed Honua'ula and scaled back from the proposed project included in the 1998 version of the Kihei-Makena Community Plan.

The council also declined to act on bills to permit transient vacation rentals outside the hotel districts. It rejected the bills in February, setting up a decision by the county administration to begin enforcing existing laws that bar short-term rentals in residential and agricultural zones.

Since July, when Planning Director Jeff Hunt said unpermitted vacation rentals would be cited and required to shut down, the outcry from operators and their clients has been loud but largely ineffective. Hunt's stand appeared to be solidified when a federal court judge dismissed a civil suit by the Maui Vacation Rental Association seeking to block the county from following through on its threat to cite violations beginning today.

Following up on his July 3 announcement on vacation rentals, Hunt drafted a set of bills to provide permits for vacation rentals, but those bills were hung up in planning commission hearings at which public testimony ran so long there was no time left for commissioners — all serving as volunteers — to hold their discussions and to act.

The year 2007 was marked by conflicts and disputes, disastrous fires and floods, landmark closings, and delays in programs and projects needed by the community.

The Kaupo-Kipahulu road remained shut by threats of rockfalls from the cliffs destabilized by the October 2006 earthquakes.

The last commercial egg farm, Hawai'i Fresh Eggs, closed in Makawao in March.

A Lahaina flood control project was stopped by high construction bids.

The first phase of the Lahaina bypass highway was delayed by discovery of archaeological sites warranting further study.

Maui Pineapple Co. shut down its Kahului cannery, the last pineapple cannery operating in Hawai'i and the United States.

After struggling with an aging building in desperate need of major renovations, the Kitada family closed their Makawao restaurant.

There were positive developments for the community.

Ruthie DePonte reopened her restaurant at the Pukalani Country Club, albeit in temporary facilities. Three teenagers responsible for setting the fire that destroyed the old restaurant had pleaded no contest to the charges.

The Heart, Brain & Vascular Center at Maui Memorial Medical Center introduced a sophisticated new imaging system allowing more detailed views of blockages and other problems in blood vessels to the brain and heart, as a prelude to efforts to introduce more sophisticated levels of treatment to stroke patients on the island.

King Kekaulike senior Benjamin Massenburg was named a Presidential Scholar, one of two students from Hawai'i selected for honors. A Maui High School team took top honors at a Project EAST conference.

The University of Hawai'i Institute for Astronomy opened its Advanced Technology Research Center, Maikalani, in September, providing a facility for research and development of instruments and for public programs to inform the community about the work being conducted at the Haleakala observatories.

Maui became an international focal point when the Dalai Lama came in April for two days of teaching and to bless the Dharma center in Paia.

The Ka'ahumanu Church celebrated its 175th anniversary, and Christ The King Church celebrated its 75th anniversary. Makawao Hongwanji observed its centennial. The Maui Historical Society and Bailey House Museum celebrated their 50th anniversaries.

A community action group, the Save Honolua Coalition, succeeded in persuading Maui Land & Pineapple to reconsider plans to develop new facilities, a golf course and a housing project around Honolua Bay.

But there seemed to be more disappointments, conflicts and tragedies.

Tragedies included the war in Iraq, which touched a number of Maui families.

Pfc. Jay Cajimat of Lahaina was killed in April. Pfc. Thomas Ponce of Kahului suffered severe injuries but was able to return home in May for his fiancee's graduation from Maui High School.

Other veterans of the continuing conflict in the Middle East were quietly hosted by Java Jazz & Soup to Nutz Cafe.

Critics of the war engaged in frequent rallies as well as the appearance in April by Bob Watada, father of Lt. Ehren Watada, who is facing court-martial for refusing deployment to Iraq.

Among more than 20 people killed in traffic crashes in 2007, possibly the most tragic involved an 8-year-old boy, Will Smith. Riding in the front passenger seat of his mother's car, he died of injuries suffered when a car speeding and passing other vehicles went out of control and crashed into his car at Ukumehame. The driver responsible for the fatality may yet face action by Maui prosecutors.

Tragedy was avoided, barely, when a Kula man was shot in May by a tenant in a rental unit who took offense at a group of men gathered in the yard. Mark Martins, 53, is charged with first-degree attempted murder for the incident in which one victim was struck by the bullets.

Two visitors avoided another kind of tragedy, although their visits included several days of recuperation at Maui Memorial Medical Center. Peller Marion, 63, was struck by a shark at Keawakapu Beach on May 7; Aaron Finley, 32, suffered an attack off Wailea Beach Oct. 29.

Maui police reported two of the largest drug busts in the county's history.

On Jan. 23, four people including a couple, Patrick and Ohia Aniban, were arrested and charged when police conducted a search of the Anibans' home in Kahului, recovering 24 pounds of cocaine and crystal methamphetamine. On Dec. 22, police searched a Kihei home, recovering 10 pounds of cocaine and arresting Gabriel Collazo, 29.

Police stepped up enforcement on traffic violations, with a new state law upgrading penalties for excessive speeding, and officers using rental vehicles to track speeders on main highways. One effort in July resulted in nine arrests and 500 citations issued.

But a judge in December ruled that a police team using a rental car fell short of proving a charge of excessive speed when the officers testified tracking a driver at 31 mph, granting the suspect driver a 3 mph margin of error.

A dispute over the propriety of Halloween in Lahaina events resulted in a shouting and shoving incident outside a Maui Cultural Resources Commission session in August. The commission allowed the event to proceed in the historic district, with the result declared "generally safe," although there were 24 arrests. A follow-up report by county planners is pending.

Even when the plan seemed positive, there were detractors. Hawaiian Electric Co. and BlueEarth Biofuels on Feb. 17 announced plans for a biofuel plant to be constructed on Maui as a demonstration of the feasibility of alternative fuels. It drew strong criticism for proposing to use palm oil as a fuel stock. Palm oil plantations are displacing pristine rain forests in Southeast Asia.

Low rainfall and soaring demand prompted mandatory cutbacks on water use in Upcountry Maui, while Central Maui consumers were told to cut back or face mandatory restrictions. There was compliance, but it took weeks of repeated warnings, and reductions may have been as much a result of change in the weather patterns as from change in consumer behavior.

Moloka'i Properties Ltd. proposed to turn over 24,000 acres to a conservation trust and establish conservation easements over another 26,000 acres to be managed by community groups, in exchange for granting luxury estates on 400 acres at La'au. It stalled at a Land Use Commission hearing on a final environmental impact statement, with the commission staff recommending rejection — prompting the Moloka'i Ranch owners on Nov. 16 to ask to withdraw the EIS for further modifications.

One of the more curious conflicts was related to the Moloka'i Ranch development plans. It involved Tavares' appointment of architect Joan Pawsat to the Maui Planning Commission.

Shortly after being confirmed to the commission, Pawsat shot off an e-mail describing herself as a new member of the "Maui County Land Use Commission" and chastising the state Land Use Commission for displaying "ignorance on multiple levels" in approving land use changes at Kona and Wailea 670.

She was also critical of the LUC over the Moloka'i Ranch Laau Point project although the commission — at that point — had only accepted an application for a boundary amendment and was still awaiting the final environmental impact statement.

"I thought she could be fair and objective," Tavares said. "I'm questioning that, as others are."

Pawsat declined to resign from the county commission.

For more Maui news, click here.