5/9/2020 #kihei #megamall #countymanager

Reflections By Mark Hyde On The Mega Mall Project And What History Tells Us About The Need For Professional County Management

Here’s why I am so passionate about the need to restructure county government to provide for a hired (not politically appointed) professional, experienced county manager who would in turn hire, not politically appoint, most county directors to create a team of professionals to take our county forward in the face of significant modern challenges unlike those existent when our current charter was adopted over 50 years ago. The flap over the proposed Kihei Mega Mall development caused me to step back and evaluate how county government could get things so wrong, and in that process realize how we can’t hire enough attorneys to fight every wrong on the back end of things.  We need to get things right on the front end.

The root cause of the Mega Mall case/disaster =  the highly political structure of Maui County government.  The mayor, the managing director, the planning director, our then local council representative, some planning department staff, the director of economic development and others simply ignored (1)  the lawful Kihei-Makena Community Plan explicitly calling for development of a light industrial park on the property, (2) a zoning application permitting development of a 123-lot light industrial park, (3) a Countywide Policy Plan rejecting urban sprawl and, most importantly, (4) a state Land Use Commission Order recorded against the 88 acre property requiring it to be developed in compliance with representations made to the LUC by Kaonoulu Ranch to develop the property into a 123-lot light industrial park.  Even when these facts and orders were presented to the then-current administration, including the directors of planning and economic development (who had previously served 5 years on the LUC including a stint as chair) they refused to act, this despite state law requiring county planning directors to enforce LUC orders.

When the proposed Mega Mall development first came to the attention of the south Maui community by means of a January 2012 front page article in the Maui News, the mayor was quoted in support of the project.  Shortly thereafter, the Kihei Community Association called and held a standing room only public meeting featuring our then south Maui council representative Don Couch and planning director Will Spence, both of whom stood before an agitated and concerned crowd of residents to tell us the Mega Mall was entirely legal, fully entitled, and even chiding members of the audience for failing to have expressed our views on the project when we had a chance.  In fact, we never had a chance because the project presented to the community in 1995 by the Ranch was a 123-lot light industrial project, one embraced by the community and embedded in the language of the community plan update enacted into law in 1998.

As I was leaving that meeting thinking the community needed to do a better job speaking up in the future (I was not a resident in 1995), a member of KCA challenged me to look into the matter given my retired status and legal background.  Another community member mentioned the existence of state Land Use Commission orders, suggesting there might be one worth examining.  My curiosity was peaked so I went to the county offices to inquire.   I discovered the files were scattered and disorganized.   Nothing definitive could be produced to shed light on supposed approval of what would become the largest shopping center in our county, even larger than Queen Ka’ahumanu Shopping Center.  I briefly met with a planning department employee who sat through the entire case brought to the LUC by the Ranch in 1994-95; she could not provide insight.  I asked to see transcripts of the 1995 hearing.  None were available.

Still not satisfied, ! made an appointment with the LUC to examine its files on Oahu, then flew there a few days later to read the reporter’s transcript of testimony given by the Ranch and to review the clerk’s transcript, the latter containing a map clearly depicting a carefully laid out 123-lot light industrial park bearing no resemblance whatsoever to a four lot Mega Mall project consisting almost entirely of retail development, including space for big box stores, with large asphalt parking lots fronting Pi’ilani Highway.  I was shocked.

Upon my return I presented this to the politically appointed planning department director and the politically appointed special assistant to the mayor.   Neither would act even as grading permits for the shopping mall were about to be issued – more likely because the special assistant to the mayor was within days of issuing the permits.

Litigation was the only way to address this Impending wrong, which was achieved through the good graces of Maui Tomorrow, citizen Daniel Kanahele and a nonprofit several concerned citizens formed, South Maui Citizens for Responsible Growth.  We easily prevailed in a contested case hearing before the LUC in early 2013 in the face of vigorous opposition by Maui County, its Corporation Counsel attorneys and the planning director who tried to convince the LUC that a 4-lot mega shopping center is the same as a 123-lot light industrial park. I will never forget sworn testimony provided by the Ranch’s former attorney who on cross examination was asked (paraphrasing), “In 1994-95 as counsel for Kaonoulu Ranch did you propose development of a retail shopping center?”  Answer, “No.”

I should mention that somewhere along the way, the same Mega Mall consultant/former county director of public works simultaneously worked as lead for Wailea 670 and in that capacity arranged for 13 acres of the light industrial park to be acquired by Wailea 670 for development of affordable housing, also not permitted by the LUC order, to meet a condition of development for W670.

At all times the LUC Order required owners of the land to inform of the LUC of land title transfers.   Several transfers occurred since the order’s issuance in 1995.  Wailea 670’s nonconforming land acquisition was never reported to the Commission.  In fact, at one point owners just stopped making annual reports to the LUC altogether – at the same time the land was being taken in an entirely new development direction.   The LUC did not take notice; the county did not take notice; apparently neither had (or today has) simple procedures in place for followup. Next thing you know the Maui News reported the monstrous, classically sprawling, nonconforming shopping center was to be built in already sprawling Kihei without the voice of the people ever being called upon.

This is why we must reform the current charter.  Our islands are too precious, resources too few and strained, people and culture too unique, and challenges too many and complex not to expect the very best from local government.  County employees, citizens, businesses, nonprofits, developers, farmers, conservationists, school children, neighborhoods, senior citizens, we all want the very best leadership, management excellence, responsiveness and customer service. I believe the current administration wants these things too.

On May 8, 2020, the county council approved a charter change proposal that’s been through years of hearings and debate.  The proposal has been tailored to Maui’s unique culture and traditions.  It retains a strong elected mayor partnered with an experienced, hired, non-political manager and team of professionals.

Let’s position Maui to face the many significant challenges ahead by voting for this change in November.

Mark Hyde