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Coco Palms debate continues as demolition nears

As the developer of the Coco Palms Resort reported being just weeks away from commencing demolition of the deteriorated site and constructing a 350-room resort, county officials and members of the public continued to debate the possibility of halting the project in two separate meetings this week.

The meetings, one from the Planning Commission on Tuesday, and the other, a committee meeting from the Kaua‘i County Council on Wednesday, followed Utah-based developer Reef Capital Partners’ largely unsuccessful community meeting in Wailua on Oct. 18.

The planning commission, a county office that makes decisions on zoning and land use permits, listened to similar concerns stated at the community meeting.

“There will be a barrage of tourists, which will negatively impact Kaua‘i and foreigners. Kaua‘i would be on par with the destruction of O‘ahu and Maui,” said Bonnie Bator, one of approximately 25 people to testify on Tuesday.

“We implore the county of Kaua‘i Planning Commission to deny this ill-conceived proposal, as it will further destroy Wailua and the east coast of Kaua‘i,” Bator said.

But no action to change the developer’s plans could be taken following the testimony, according to Planning Director Kaaina Hull. He said at the meeting that its purpose was simply to acknowledge receipt of a required annual status report.

“The commission does not have the authority to take action in any fashion today,” Hull said.

Residents’ testimonies in opposition to the plans were lengthy and included concerns of damage to the environment, negative cultural impacts, increases in traffic, flooding risks, and pending investigations by the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.

Reef Capital’s attorney Mauna Kea Trask, on the other hand, spent about 50 minutes at that meeting responding to questions about what he called “misinformation” from testifiers about the resort’s development.

“It’s on the historic register, state and national. So it’s a rehabilitation and reconstruction project,” said Trask in an interview with The Garden Island following the meeting.

“We’re not trying to be oppositional. We’re just completing the project,” he added.

‘It’s legal, it’s done’

Hull met with the Kaua‘i County Council the following day, where he had been requested by council member Bernard Carvalho to provide an update on the developer’s zoning, variance, and special management use permits.

“The whole objective here is to clear up any misconceptions or misinformation, or to verify or validate certain things as it relates to Coco Palms,” said Kaua‘i County Council Chair Mel Rapozo.

Rapozo and other council members questioned Hull about how Reef Capital’s permits could still be valid after first being issued to a prior developer nearly a decade ago.

Hull stated that the developer’s permits are valid due to the Planning Commission having set financial requirements that the developer pay “into various things” that ranged between $1,000 to $1 million between 2015 and 2018, which vested the permits.

“So any attempt of the planning commission to deny these permits now comes with a legal responsibility and possibly very large financial responsibility.”

Rapozo later suggested the County Council hire an outside attorney, not affiliated with the county or planning department, to review the permits and conduct an audit of the process.

“Have that attorney review all the steps along the way to tell us if in fact, as of 2023, is everything right?”

Rapozo was critical of how the permits could still be valid due to “drastic” changes to the population, sea level, and housing since 2014. He also voiced concerns about traffic.

“I already get traffic coming down (Wailua) Houselots in the morning without Coco Palms there. And I can only imagine when you get 350 rooms and 300 people trying to come out of that events center. I don’t know where you’re gonna go,” Rapozo said.

Council member Felicia Cowden said she was not sure how the project was still moving forward.

“Someone made a bad decision a decade ago, and now we’re stuck with it?” she said.

Members of the public also testified against the resort at the Wednesday meeting and proposed suing Reef Capital to stop the development.

“It’s not hard to sue developers and you can win … so we need to fight,” said Bridget Hammerquist, a Kaua‘i resident who is outspoken about being against the resort.

Hammerquist said she knew of several people willing to contribute millions of dollars to turn the space into a park, a suggestion criticized by council member Bill DeCosta, who doubted they could have altruistic intentions.

“Who are these people contributing those millions of dollars? And what do we owe them now?” he said.

“Now they’re gonna tell us, ‘Hey, we bought your little fish farm … we bought your little Coco Palms. We bought you guys your little nonprofit playground. But we now own your county.”

Trask was also at the Wednesday meeting, where he told council members he would do his “best to dispel some of the myths,” responding to several environmental and cultural complaints.

“There’s so much misinformation, I can’t do it all. But it’s not a bad project. It’s legal, it’s done. We’re trying to do the best we can,” he said.

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Emma Grunwald, reporter, can be reached 808-652-0638 or egrunwald@thegardenisland.com.
Source: The Garden Island

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