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Affordable housing project gets key permit extension
However, flood mitigation hurdles abound for Kihei Wailani Village
An hourslong debate with more than 20 testifiers came down to affordable housing benefits versus location flooding risks for a proposed 100-percent workforce development on a roughly 12-acre parcel off Hoonani Street in Kihei.
In the end, the Maui Planning Commission voted 6-2, with commissioners P. Denise La Costa and Ashley Lindsey dissenting and Kawika Freitas absent and excused, to approve a five-year time extension on an existing special management area use permit to initiate construction on the subdivision, which is being billed as the foundation for the future development of single-family residential workforce housing lots.
While testifiers brought up concerns over flooding risks to the site, Commissioner Dale Thompson said he’s confident that the county’s Public Works Department wouldn’t approve any projects that would pose a danger to residents. Plus, he and commission Chairman Christian Tackett said many of the neighboring residents opposing the project have not vacated their homes due to flooding risks.
“Everybody else that lives around there — they don’t want this project — but they didn’t abandon their homes,” Thompson said before the vote.
Tackett added that “everybody else that’s come after is saying, ‘No you can’t do it,’ and all their houses are in the same exact place — they’re all getting to stay in their houses.”
The vote isn’t the end of the story for the subdivision, though, which has yet to sell to longtime affordable housing developer Peter Savio, who is planning to build the workforce homes as the Kihei Wailani Village.
Further complicating matters, the project has already been advertised as having 81 units, and a project official Tuesday said that it has received 2,700 applications with 501 people pre-approved to buy.
However, it has only been approved under the existing SMA permit for up to 54 lots and has yet to gain other key county approvals — such as a Public Works Department drainage review.
“We have been concerned it has been advertised as having greater density than what the permit allows,” Planning Director Michele McLean said. “We have told the owner this. We aren’t sure why they continue to put that out there.”
McLean added that any changes would trigger the need for a new SMA permit, a new public hearing and other requirements.
During testimony Tuesday, the project saw a torrent of pushback from neighborhood testifiers and even hydrology researchers, saying the project lot is in a dangerous flooding zone near Waipuilani Gulch and existing Hoonani Street homes.
Opponents said affordable housing shouldn’t be placed in a flood area, especially given the higher risks of the particular lot. Although the Kihei Community Association supported the project in the past, its president testified in opposition Tuesday, saying that flooding risks and other concerns are bubbling up.
Testifier Amanda Cording has a doctorate in hydrology and works for a company that was commissioned by the county to develop the draft Kihei Drainage Master Plan alternatives assessment for Waipuilani and Kulanihakoi districts, which included the Hoonani homes in its considerations.
When asked by La Costa if she would purchase a home, she said “no ma’am” and called placing homes there an “environmental injustice” that should be taken “very seriously.”
“The estimates in the academic world of actual flows going through there are so variable — there is so much unknown there,” she said. “Affordable homes are absolutely so critically important, but the zoning and where they’re placed — it might be a disservice to people with not a lot of savings to deal with flooding damage within those corridors.”
Perhaps most pivotal, though, was testimony from Derae Shibata, a woman in her 30s who said she’s lived in Kihei for her whole life. She often visits the site to bring food to her best friend’s dad who has lived there on an established campsite for years that has successfully endured rain and flooding.
“You guys are making it sound like it gets flooded and everybody’s stuff goes away. He has a whole campsite that’s been there for a long time,” she said. “This directly affects me because I wanted to live there. I’ve been trying to apply for many of these affordable subdivisions that are going up.”
“This is supposed to be a good thing for us,” she added. “Talk to the people who live there right now. See how they feel. Figure out what to do with the water. Hearing they’re going to put in a retention basin is better than nothing.”
Commissioners said the extension is not the end of the process for the proposal and it will be thoroughly vetted through necessary approvals. Given the project’s location at the bottom of a watershed, it would have to convey a 100-year flood safely without affecting downstream properties.
“To keep it simple, if they can get through our drainage review and mitigate both the increase in runoff from the project as well as safely pass the existing flows through Waipuilani Gulch without affecting any downstream properties, there is no basis for department to withhold an approval,” said Public Works Deputy Director Jordan Molina. “However they have a monumental feat in front of them to try and accomplish that.”
A representative for a hui of 15 landowners, Roderick Fong, said he is seeking to get through the approval then hopefully sell to an affordable housing developer.
Over the last decade, about six possible buyers were in the mix and one possible purchase that was supposed to close in December fell through, Fong said. The hui has been actively trying to sell due to the age of the hui members, who are in their 80s and 90s, and they expect to lose money based on what they bought the land for in the mid-’70s.
Amid questions by the commission, Fong attempted to distance himself from the developer during the meeting Tuesday, saying the project has gone through several iterations, the hui he represents is not a developer and the application is merely to extend the existing permit, which was approved for 27 homes, each with one accessory dwelling. The subdivision has sought an extension multiple times.
“I fully believe in this project. I really like this property. I believe in the affordable homes. I believe in the mitigation measures that’s being handled by the engineers and the county. The biggest reason for selling it has to do with the hui members. They’re not making money from when they bought it in mid-’70s to what they selling it for. They’re in their 80s and 90s and they’re in favor of being away from this project,” Fong said, adding that it would take many more years to see financial benefits from a development.
* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at email@example.com.