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Proposed Punalu‘u Village goes before Planning Commission

HILO, Hawai‘i — Developers behind a controversial planned resort community in Punalu‘u hope the project will rehabilitate the surrounding area.

Punalu‘u Village is a “residential and commercial community” proposed to be built on a 147-acre parcel in Punalu‘u, restoring several disused buildings and attractions in the process. If built, the project would add nearly 300 accommodation units to the rural community, as well as a market space, golf course, restaurant and more.

Developer Black Sand Beach LLC has applied for a special management area permit for the project, but the Windward Planning Commission was unable to make a decision on the matter at its March meeting after an outpouring of public opposition to the project extended the meeting to more than eight hours.

The commission will take up the matter again on Monday, although still more testimony — also overwhelmingly in opposition — has been submitted for that meeting as well.

Some of the opposition to the project stems from fears that the project will impact fragile ecosystems and endanger local wildlife, such as the critically hawksbill sea turtles — the nearby black sand beach is one of the last nesting sites for the turtles in the state, said Maxx Philips, Hawai‘i director for the Center for Biological Diversity.

However, project consultant Daryn Arai said most of the areas planned to be developed for the project are located away from sensitive areas — much of the project would restore the closed facilities of the former Sea Mountain Resort that was built in the area in the 1960s and 1970s.

The project will also avoid cultural sites found in the area, while sensitive species in the project site are limited to a single tree species, which construction will avoid, Arai said.

As for the turtles, Arai said the project could be more helpful than harmful.

“Right now, when you think about it, anyone who goes to Punalu‘u — especially tourists — all they know about is the black sand beach,” Arai said. “So they all congregate on the black sand, taking pictures, playing in the water. But that’s all there is down there, there’s nothing else. So the focal point is here and the weight of visitation is on one particular area.”

Arai said current visitation to the area is already disrupting the environment, with visitors parking outside of designated areas and driving up to the beach itself. By providing other attractions in the area, he said, at least visitor activity will be distributed around more sites.

As part of the county Planning Director’s recommendation for the project, the developers will have to create several management plans before any construction can begin, including plans involving parking and beach access. Arai said that, ideally, beach access can be limited to pedestrians only while vehicles are directed to designated parking areas, which he said will reduce degradation of the site without restricting people from visiting.

Arai emphasized that the project’s concept is about “finding opportunities to preserve what’s there.” The only development mauka of Ninole Loop Road will be rehabilitation of already existing sites, including Sea Mountain’s former restaurant — which was damaged by a tsunami in the 1970s and has been derelict for decades — the similarly decrepit Aspen Center and the Old Punalu‘u Village.

“A lot of the residents spoke (to us) about what it was like to have a working restaurant,” Arai said. “Yes, it was part of a development, but those who worked there really enjoyed what it did for the community. And once the golfers packed up and went home … in the evening hours (locals came) talking story, eating, drinking, having a good time.”

Other aspects of the project include a community market space across the road from the restaurant and a 63-unit condominium complex adjacent to the existing Colony 1 condominium development.

A vast component of the opposition to the project has come from residents concerned about the area losing its local character. But while Arai said that the project has changed several aspects to better match the character — building heights will be limited to 2.5 stories, for example, and the project is far smaller than failed projects other developers have attempted in the area, some of which planned for more than 3,000 units — he added that “some sacrifices have to be made.”

“People see any development as detrimental,” Arai said. “But doing nothing is also detrimental.”

Arai said the land was mismanaged in the decades before it was purchased by current owner Eva Liu, with improper rubbish dumping, wildfire risks and the aforementioned parking problems. As Black Sand Beach is the sole provider of water, sewer, electrical and other services across the 434-acre parcel, keeping that aging infrastructure functioning requires a consistent stream of revenue — a project document calls Punalu‘u Village “the smallest footprint necessary” to support that infrastructure.

However, Liu and Black Sand Beach LLC will have an uphill battle winning the support of residents, who have also been critical of how the developers have communicated with the local community. Testimony from Ka‘u residents has reiterated that they believe their input is consistently disregarded and that the developers’ plans change without consultation with the community.

The Center for Biological Diversity has filed for a contested case on behalf of several residents, including Elsa Dedman, whose family land would be fully surrounded by the proposed project.

Philips argued in her petition that residents who perform Hawaiian cultural practices at the beach already have difficulty accessing the site with the current crowding, and will be impeded even more by increased traffic brought on by a new development.

“This is a 147-acre development in rural Ka‘u,” Philips reiterated. “It’s building 225 residential units, a retail center, a golf course, tennis facilities. It’s not a small footprint, regardless of what the developers say.”

“With the proposed increased development, Ms. Dedman and the people of Ka‘u and Punalu‘u will likely not be able to access the ocean and resources,” read the petition. “It is already difficult for Ms. Dedman to perform her cultural practices and gather traditional resources ‘with thousands of people stopping and staring at us.’”

Furthermore, Philips said, despite Arai’s claims that Black Sand Beach LLC intends to install a new wastewater system, its special management area permit application makes no mention of that in a list of planned improvements. The existing system is barely capable of supporting the current usage in the area, she went on.

But despite the scope of the project and the sensitivity of the area, the Planning Department found in its recommendation that the project does not meet the state criteria that would require environmental review.

“If these critical factors haven’t been studied by the Commission, how can the community know what’s happening?” Philips said.

Two other petitions for standing for contested cases have been filed, one by an association of Colony 1 apartment owners — who largely raised concerns about the ability of the existing wastewater system to handle current usage, let alone that of a new resort community — and the other by a hui of Ka‘u residents.

The Windward Planning Commission could make a decision regarding those contested case applications on Monday, depending on time. Should it grant any of the petitions, the commission will not be able to rule on the Black Sand Beach LLC matter until the contested case is resolved, a process that could take a year or more.

“It would be a shocker if it was done in less than nine months to a year,” Philips said, adding that the law seems quite clear that the signatories of her petition have standing for their case.

Arai said Black Sand Beach LLC plans to complete construction of the project within five years of having their SMA permit granted.
Source: The Garden Island

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