More jobs, growth of BYUH behind plan for La'ie's future
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer
The plan by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to build 1,200 homes, a shopping center, churches, parks and light industrial complex at Malaekahana may succeed where earlier plans have failed, officials say.
Just a year ago, a proposal to build 550 homes was scrapped when the economy tanked and local support seemed weak.
But now, spurred by recognition that Brigham Young University-Hawai'i — the area's economic engine — must grow in order to survive and the need for jobs amid the economic downturn, the college, Polynesian Cultural Center and Hawaii Reserves Inc., which manages and owns land affiliated with the Mormon Church, say they have a viable program to build more than twice that many homes, including market-rate and affordable units.
Reducing costs through economy of scale, increased density and the use of inexpensive building materials will play a part, said Eric Beaver, HRI president and CEO. The Mormon Church is also considering such options as a land trust that would guarantee that affordable housing would remain affordable, he said. Lastly, the project would consider government subsidies where HRI had not done so before, Beaver said.
"This round we've put everything on the table," he said.
The plan still faces obstacles, primarily government approvals regarding land usage. But, "we think we have a very strong case," said Steven Wheelwright, BYUH president.
The new plan comes with the state's unemployment rate at 7 percent — a level not seen since the 1970s — and residents more open to projects that would bring jobs.
This year the three La'ie-based entities and hundreds of residents, a majority from La'ie, planned what they thought La'ie's future should look like, creating Envision La'ie, a summary of those ideas.
But opposition continues, centered on the impact of such a large influx of people in the Windward area.
Questions linger about increased traffic on roads, the removal of hundreds of acres of agriculture land from possible production and whether the church will actually build homes if it gets its zoning change.
"A lot of people are for affordable housing," said Kent Fonoimoana, a La'ie resident. "It sounds good but a lot of people are saying, 'We've heard this from you before. We just don't trust you any more.' "
About 20 years ago the church's representatives pushed to rezone land behind the campus for housing with the promise that affordable homes would be built there, but nothing was done, Fonoimoana said.
Six years ago Hawaii Reserves Inc. announced it would build 550 homes, including affordable units, on 663 acres at Gun Stock Ranch. That plan was scrapped last year as the economy soured. Now the new plan doubles the number of units there.
People supported the zoning change 20 years ago that called for 550 new homes, said Creighton Mattoon, of Punalu'u.
However, "with the current Envision La'ie thing the scale is way out of proportion to what many of us had supported," Mattoon said. He added that he always supported affordable housing, "but not at the expense of taking all that valuable agriculture land out of agriculture and not at the expense of creating a whole new town."
The driving force behind the plan is a need to increase enrollment at BYUH.
The Mormon Church spends more to support the BYUH campus than on any other of its universities and that must end, Wheelwright said.
The solution is to increase enrollment by 5 percent to 7 percent a year, he said, adding that means more dormitories would have to be built along with classroom buildings and housing for new faculty.
But space on the campus is limited and although it is surrounded by vacant land that the church owns, that land is zoned for housing.
"The problem is if we're going to maintain the same character, which would be two- and three-story buildings, then we need to expand the footprint of the campus," said Wheelwright.
The success of the comprehensive plan, which also calls for expanding PCC, depends on overcoming some hurdles, Wheelwright said.
• Changes must be made to the Ko'olauloa Sustainable Communities Plan.
• State land-use boundaries must be changed.
• A Plan Review Use document for the project must be approved by the city.
The recent community meetings that created the Envision La'ie plan also built strong community support for it by including residents in the process and asking them for ideas, Wheelwright said.
With the expectations of more affordable homes and jobs, the people are backing the change and so did the Ko'olauloa Neighborhood Board that voted to approve the necessary changes to the sustainable plan, he said.
Wheelwright said the project is about 85 percent of the way through the process even though actual construction could be years away.
Delsa Moe, director of cultural presentation at PCC, said the plan reflects what the community wants and it allows for controlled growth, which is necessary to sustain the La'ie economy.
"I fear if BYU and PCC are not allowed the opportunity to grow that I might lose my job," Moe said. "I might have to move. The future for my children would be bleak."
But much of the project's success will hinge on convincing government to alter land use in La'ie and neighboring Malaekahana, which could lead to a heated battle as members of the larger Ko'olauloa community push to retain O'ahu's rural lifestyle.
La'ie resident Choon James said the rallying cry for affordable housing clouds people's judgment and they fail to look critically at the details.
She wondered in an e-mail response about the true affordability of the project. Then there's the question of what "sustainable" means.
"Open and robust factual dialogue along this Ko'olau region, without fear or favor, is in order," James wrote. "There are too many unanswered questions and concerns."