Turtle Bay developers back at the bargaining table, hope for cool heads

HONOLULU—Can we talk? For Turtle Bay Resort LLC, that seems to be the message to the community. The current scaled back plan to develop parts of the resort’s property has been outlined in the preparation notice to the Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) released on August 23. The community has until September 22 to make comment on the prep notice and can challenge specifics at an open house at the property on September 15.

No one expects the process to be easy. The resort representative would like it to be civil.

Over the past year, the resort investment group’s representative, RePlay, engaged the community in discussion to craft a new plan after a short list of community leaders failed to give the reworked development plan the thumbs up.

“We had an earlier version we shared with a small group of community stakeholders and got some very direct, very tough feedback,” admits Drew Stotesbury of Replay Resorts and the on-site asset manager. The company held that plan in abeyance while it sought input from the North Shore community.

Stotesbury says he was struck by disparity among the various perspectives.

“There is not one voice, not one opinion,” Stotesbury says. “That’s one of the reasons why it’s taken us so long to get to this point because in addition to trying to balance the interests of the community, the environment, and the investors, we had to balance it within the community to try to distill all the perspectives we heard. And that was a bit of a surprise.”

The permutations of concern came out thoughtfully because of the company’s “what’s right and where’s the balance” approach, according to Dawn Chang, principal of Kuiwalu, a small consulting firm specializing in culturally sensitive issues with developers and Native Hawaiian families on Native Hawaiian burials. Chang says balance should first mean understanding Turtle Bay Resort’s history.

“We need to remember that Kuilima Hotel really was a result of the community asking for something to be done in this area since the plantation was going away,” Chang says.

The original hotel opened in 1972 and went through name and development incarnations for a decade. In 1983, it was renamed Turtle Bay Golf and Tennis Resort when it was acquired by Hilton Hotels and Resorts. In 1986, the complex was granted a unilateral agreement providing zoning rights for five hotel parcels incorporating 2,500 hotel units and five development parcels with 1,000 residential units.

“There is not one voice, not one opinion.”

Over ensuing years, the community railed against development efforts to realize the build-out. Three years ago, then-Gov. Linda Lingle supported the idea of a State purchase of the property. But with insufficient public trust land funds, the idea failed to move forward. When former Turtle Bay Resort owner Oaktree Capital Management was threatened with foreclosure, Turtle Bay reverted to the international investment management consortium. In July 2010, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled developers would have to complete a new EIS.

The current plan as revealed in the prep notice to the supplemental EIS shows 60 percent less density and ¾ fewer hotel rooms than granted under the original zoning. Only two hotel parcels amounting to 625 rooms and 590 market resort homes and 160 affordable community homes, which Stotesbury says means “according to what people can pay,” are in the plan.

Stotesbury also says they are trying to do more in response to community concerns: choking traffic, natural environment preservation and open space, and concern for the Hawaiian monk seal. Additional effort includes creating five parks (four on the waterfront) and voluntarily increasing minimum ocean setbacks to 300 feet at Kewela Bay and a minimum of a 150-foot feetback setback at other places instead of the required 100 feet. Aggregate setback area amounts to 42 acres.

“In addition to the resort lands that have been controversial, a lot of people don’t know we have 490 acres mauka of Kamehameha Highway,” Stotesbury says. “We’re in the process of not only incorporating that into a conservation easement to preserve agricultural use perpetuity, but we’re also working to integrate it into the fabric of the resort to create more sustainable ag farm-to-table and ag tourism opportunities and the employment that goes with it.”

He also says “jobs” is not a four-letter word. “For people who live in Kahuku, or the surrounding area, jobs means the ability to keep families together, the ability to not have to commute an hour and a half each day or lose your kids to the ‘mainland,’” Stotesbury says. “That’s just as emotional for some people as other issues are for others.”

That said, the split in opinion over the proposed development hinges on more than whatever employment the resort may offer or mitigating traffic sludge. Chang’s focus on the cultural implications keeps her in touch with those in the community upset with what the development may uncover and, she says, with her own ethnicity as a native Hawaiian woman. She says the resort recognizes that anytime there is development near the shoreline, there is always the potential of discovering subsurface features, including burials.

“We have voluntarily engaged in doing an archaeological inventory survey to supplement the work done many years ago, to build upon what already has been done doing many more test trenches trying to find out what are the culture resources there,” Chang says. “We’re also doing a cultural impact assessment.”

Twenty-five years ago, there was no law requiring such an assessment. Chang is also working with the Kahuku Burial Committee and others to come to agreement about the moist culturally appropriate remedy when, not if, remains are found. To minimize disruption, Chang is asking longtime residents and all who enjoy the area to share their knowledge.

The resort’s efforts and attitude toward the community may not turn the opinion of those who want no development whatsoever. The question is whether they will again take action and in what form.

Past efforts have shown the community has been able to rebuff development. And this time around, that outcome may yet result. More important is the quality of the process regardless of outcome. However the ongoing discussion plays out, it would be a measure of respect for ourselves—not the opposing perspective and not the international and the faraway investors and management firm—to keep the rancor out of the conversation. Passion for whichever point of view is necessary, but the higher the stakes, the greater the increased need for cool and candid heads so we really can talk.

The entire discussion with Drew Stotesbury and Dawn Chang is on the Town Square archive at www.hawaiipublicradio.org.

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