Koa Ridge debate nearing conclusion
by Andrew Gomes
Advertiser Staff Writer
The state Land Use Commission last week finished hearing public testimony on a petition by Castle & Cooke Homes to urbanize 768 acres of farmland between Mililani and Waipi'o for its proposed Koa Ridge master-planned community.
The nine-member commission has received a massive amount of input — positive and negative — from Mililani residents, government officials and expert witnesses on urban planning, traffic and farming.
Even a campaign mailing postcards to the LUC was mounted to influence the commission's decision on the project planned for 5,000 homes, a 28-acre medical campus, 150-room hotel, parks, two elementary schools, and nearly 500,000 square feet of commercial space for retail, offices and light industrial businesses.
The LUC from late March to mid-April received 73 postcards opposing the project.
Last week's meeting was the end of the public testimony phase of the hearing, which began in January and was conducted twice a month since then.
Appearances by legislators and possibly some rebuttal witnesses are expected in May, and the commission could issue a ruling shortly thereafter.
Castle & Cooke, which developed Mililani, seeks to build Koa Ridge in two phases: one called Koa Ridge Makai with 3,500 homes and most of the commercial space, and one called Castle & Cooke Waiawa with 1,500 homes.
Work on the estimated $2.2 billion project could begin next year and produce initial homes in 2012, if LUC approval can be obtained along with a zoning change from the City Council.
The developer said its plan is appropriate for the site because the land is within the city's urban growth boundary and is adjacent to Waipi'o and Mililani communities as well as 3,700 acres owned by Kamehameha Schools already approved for urban use.
Major concerns surrounding Koa Ridge are the loss of prime farmland, traffic impacts and delivery of new schools.
Among some of the key developments in the case since January is a recommendation by the state Office of Planning that Castle & Cooke protect 546 acres of prime farmland elsewhere on O'ahu by encumbering such land with an easement restricting the land to agricultural use forever.
Castle & Cooke opposes such a requirement. The developer has proposed to move farm tenants on its Koa Ridge site to comparable land in Wahiawā owned by sister company Dole Food Co.
The Office of Planning is insisting on an easement because there's no guarantee that Castle & Cooke or another developer won't seek urbanization of the Wahiawā site years or decades from now.
"The state is increasingly concerned over the continued loss of agricultural lands to urban and residential uses ... permanent protection is one of the only means to provide some security that these losses do not permanently erode Hawai'i's land base for future food and energy needs," the agency said in written testimony.
The state Department of Agriculture opposes Koa Ridge, but said in testimony that if the LUC approves the project then the easement should be required.
Urbanizing the Koa Ridge site, which was previously used to grow pineapple, has been a contentious issue. Some 546 acres of the 768-acre project site consists of the top two soil grades regarded as prime farming soil, or close to 5 percent of such high-quality farmland on O'ahu suitable for growing crops.
Several testifiers, including farmers and the Sierra Club Hawai'i Chapter, have said that preserving prime farmland on O'ahu is critical to ensure that the state has the capability to reduce its reliance on imported food. The potential for biofuel crops to provide energy is another consideration.
Yet the Hawai'i Farm Bureau Federation in February testified in support of Koa Ridge.
On Wednesday, Wayne Ogasawara, who leases 500 acres adjacent to the Koa Ridge site from Castle & Cooke, said his experience subleasing land to other farmers tells him that farmland supply exceeds demand on O'ahu.
"I sincerely believe there is ample land for agriculture," he said.
Mike Conway, agriculture manager for Dole Food in Hawai'i, said the potential for a biofuel farm industry in Hawai'i is a "myth." He noted that many former sugar and pineapple fields are fallow because farming is economically challenging in the state.
Another contentious issue over Koa Ridge is traffic.
Joe Francher, who moved to Wahiawā five years ago, said it takes him 70 minutes to get to Kaka'ako for work in the morning, and 90 minutes to get home.
"The housing is great, the traffic is not great," he said of Koa Ridge.
Richard Poirier, a Mililani resident since 1967 and chairman of the Mililani/Waipi'o/Malemanu Neighborhood Board, is asking the LUC to reject Koa Ridge unless the developer can avoid causing more traffic problems, including any increase to commutes to Downtown Honolulu.
The Mililani Mauka/ Laulani Valley Neighborhood Board also has expressed concerns over traffic, but voted 5-2 to support Koa Ridge.
Castle & Cooke said it plans to spend $50 million on traffic improvements, including new freeway interchange connections at Ka Uka Boulevard.
The developer also said the state Department of Transportation plans major improvements including an afternoon zipper lane, shoulder lane use and a direct connection linking H-2 to a planned park-and-ride rail station at Pearl Highlands.
Even with mitigation efforts, DOT expects Koa Ridge would worsen congestion at the H-1 and H-2 interchange that already is grossly over capacity at peak commute periods.
A traffic analysis by Castle & Cooke said the morning commute to town would grow only by about five minutes.
DOT has proposed some changes to the developer's road improvement plan, including building an H-2 interchange sooner at Pineapple Road and eliminating access to Koa Ridge from Kamehameha Highway. But the agency said benefits of Koa Ridge would outweigh adverse traffic impacts if its concerns can be addressed properly.
Some of the benefits associated with Koa Ridge, according to Castle & Cooke, are creating jobs and affordable housing. The developer estimates there will be 2,500 jobs in the community, or two jobs for every three homes.
It's expected that the city will require that at least 30 percent of Koa Ridge housing, or 1,500 homes, be affordable to families earning from less than 80 percent to 120 percent of Honolulu's median income.
Regarding schools, some Mililani residents have criticized Castle & Cooke for not doing more to ensure sufficient school capacity evolved as Mililani was built over 30 years, and fear that Koa Ridge will strain surrounding schools.
The state Department of Education estimates that Koa Ridge will have a school-age population of 826 elementary students, 244 middle school students and 288 high school students, triggering a requirement only for new elementary schools.
Castle & Cooke plans to dedicate land for two elementary schools and has committed to contribute $5.8 million to help build one. However, one of the elementary schools would be on land on the diamondhead side of H-2 that Castle & Cooke may have trouble developing as a second phase.
A middle school and a high school are proposed by another project known as Waiawa Ridge, which would also provide road and sewer infrastructure necessary for Castle & Cooke to build its second phase.
The DOE said there would be sufficient capacity at Koa Ridge and nearby existing schools to handle children from Koa Ridge if the second phase and Waiawa Ridge aren't built, though temporary facilities would be needed.
Timing for Waiawa Ridge is uncertain because the developer, an affiliate of Gentry Homes, last year lost its right to develop the 3,700-acre property owned by Kamehameha Schools.
Because Waiawa Ridge is in limbo, the Office of Planning is recommending that phase two of Koa Ridge not be urbanized unless Castle & Cooke has road access to the site and seeks approval within 20 years of the first phase.