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Interests clash over proposed HPM manufacturing facility in Koloa

KOLOA — A proposed South Shore manufacturing facility has emerged as the latest battleground in the ongoing debate over the island’s approach to development.

Hawai‘i Planing Mill (HPM) Building Supply is seeking several permits to accommodate the plant — which would manufacture wooden trusses and wall panels for housing construction — on land currently zoned for agriculture.

The HPM facility, located south of the remnants of the Koloa Sugar Mill, would feature a 40-foot tall, 100-foot wide and 260-foot long tent, surrounded by a chain-link fence. The site has previously been used for sugar cane and corn cultivation, but agricultural production has been discontinued, and other than a brief movie production in 2018, the land has gone unused.

The 100-year-old Hawai‘i Island-based company would import raw materials from the Pacific Northwest to construct between 10 and 15 wall and truss packages per month for the first one to two years, each of which could be used for one single-family home.

Since there is only one such company that makes these packages on Kaua‘i — Island Truss in Hanama‘ulu — the new plant could have a major impact on the cost and ease of housing construction on island.

Though the Planning Commission could not reach quorum needed to vote on the item at a May 24 morning meeting — only three members were present — public debate over the project was fierce, with proponents touting the project’s benefits for affordable housing construction and opponents expressing concern about the potential effects of the new plant.

Two petitions to intervene were filed against the proposal, one by the nearby Po‘ipu ‘Aina Estates and the other by Pacific Resource Partnership, a non-profit which represents 7,000 people, mainly unionized construction workers, 250 of which are located on Kaua‘i.

Those opposed expressed concerns about the effect the plant would have on the neighborhood, on unionized labor, and the speed of the permitting process.

“The process for approving this project has been rushed with little time for the community to understand the impacts this factory will have on the area,” said Chris Delaunay, PRP Government Relations Manager in a statement. “There is no evidence that this project will create jobs that will allow workers to afford the high cost of living in Hawai‘i or create more affordable housing opportunities. Instead, this factory will likely replace workers with machines and take away jobs that pay a living wage.”

HPM reported that the facility would add about 20 to 23 new jobs, paying living wages. HPM employs an employee-stock-ownership plan, in which 100% of company stock is owned by workers but their employees are not unionized.

“I’m a strong union member,” said Cal Santos, a Koloa resident at the Tuesday meeting. “The union has provided me with a great life, where I could purchase a home on the road I grew up on. I don’t know if this will take away work from us. I think we just need to gather more information about this.”

Christine Martin, a resident of the Po‘ipu ‘Aina Estates, which sits half a mile away from the proposed facility, felt like the plant would go against the character of the area.

“It sets a precedent for the whole area,” said Martin. “If one thing becomes industrial, they have a precedent to put more. And it’s Ag land.”

Martin, along with other Po‘ipu ‘Aina residents were also concerned about the increased noise and traffic that might be created in the neighborhood.

‘Basic economics’

Proponents — whose ranks included state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka and state Senate President Ron Kouchi — hope that the facility can bring down the price of building homes, provide jobs, and facilitate the construction of more affordable housing.

“We really want this to happen for the affordable housing developers,” said Jim Edmonds, President of Permanently Affordable Living Kaua‘i, and a member of the Kaua‘i Affordable Housing Alliance in an interview. “We know the people, they support us, they’ve helped us in a lot of ways.”

In the past, HPM has worked with Habitat For Humanity to construct affordable homes on island.

The cost of building a home is a huge barrier to constructing affordable housing. Even when working with a significant amount of volunteer labor, Edmonds reported that a 3-bedroom house costs $300,000 to build.

“There is no greater urgency on this island,” said Edmonds. “It’s a crisis, and we’re trying to do everything we can to save these local people leaving daily. Anything that cuts down on our costs — we’re totally for it.”

HPM CEO Jason Fujimoto was surprised that the plan had generated push back.

“It’s nothing mysterious or scary. A lot of people think factory and they think big plumes of black smoke, but it’s a very simple operation,” said Fujimoto. He reported that the factory would feature a computer-controlled saw with the noise output of a vacuum cleaner.

Fujimoto described the benefits of the facility as “basic economics.”

“We believe that competition is good for the community and will increase the island’s capacity,” he said.

The planning department preliminary recommended approval of the permitting prior to the public hearing — subject to conditions, including that the project prioritizes hiring local contractors and employees.

The decision-making on the permit, which had already been deferred at a May 10 meeting due to lack of members present, was once again deferred by Planning Commission.
Source: The Garden Island

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