Park project hailed as benefit to community

WAILUKU – A sports complex nearly a decade in the making broke ground in Central Maui on Thursday morning, even as neighboring Maui Lani residents held up signs in silent protest.

A slew of state and county officials donned hard hats and bright-orange construction vests at the project site, largely barren land once used for agriculture. Proponents celebrated the project as “a benefit to the community.”

“To have our children . . . be able to have some place to just run around and play is really important,” Mayor Alan Arakawa said at a ceremony held just before the groundbreaking at noon. “When we don’t have this, they’re playing in the streets and getting into trouble.”

Arakawa added that there is a severe shortage of sports fields on Maui and dozens of sports leagues must compete to secure a field for regular practices or games.

“Even if we double the amount of active fields we have, we won’t have enough,” Arakawa said.

The 65-acre sports complex is to be built in phases adjacent to Kuihelani Highway in Kahului and behind Maui Lani subdivisions. Construction of the first phase is slated to begin next month, with anticipated completion in October 2015, according to a Department of Land and Natural Resources announcement Thursday. About $14.8 million has been appropriated for the first phase, which includes a high school baseball field, two softball fields, two comfort stations, a concession stand, parking, landscaping, an irrigation well and a storage tank. Goodfellow Bros. Inc. has been contracted to build the first phase.

At full build-out, the park will have two additional softball fields (four total), four little league baseball fields, three soccer fields, another concession stand, more comfort stations and a total of 700 parking spaces, state officials said.

“As our population grows, we’ve seen this tremendous growth in our sports activities,” said Jon Viela, who founded All Pono Organization, a youth sports organization with more than 400 keiki on baseball, softball and soccer teams.

“We’ve outgrown the field inventory here,” Viela said.

But some Maui Lani homeowners are worried that having the sports complex so close to their homes would subject them to excessive lights from the ballfields; loud noise from the games and from late night parties; gridlock traffic from adding so many cars to a residential area; and decreased property values from being in such close proximity to the sports complex.

The Maui Lani Neighbors group, through their attorney, sent a 42-page “cease and desist demand” opposing development of the complex to the DLNR, which is the state agency tasked with implementing the project. The letter alleges that the state violated at least seven county and state regulations in “trying to fast-track the project,” including inadequate environmental assessments, failure to follow county planning document designations and a lack of authority of the Maui Planning Commission to grant a special use permit for the sports complex.

A spokesman said members of the group are still waiting for a response from the state agency.

“If they don’t provide a response, then we’d probably have to continue with legal action,” said Mark Hoenig, who lives in the Na Hoku Subdivision at Maui Lani. He and his wife, Tina, were among a handful of residents who held up two banners during the groundbreaking ceremony.

The banners had messages, including “This sports complex is illegal” and “Tsutsui & DLNR are breaking the law.”

Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui, who was chosen last year to lead the state’s Sports Development Initiative, has been working with state and county agencies for several years to bring the project to fruition. He said Thursday that he was happy work on the park was moving forward and thankful to the community and agencies involved.

“I know there are some surrounding community members who are concerned,” he said. “They have my word (that) although we are moving forward, we are committed to trying to address some of these concerns, be it noise, lighting, traffic. . . . Anytime you start a project, you want to be a good neighbor, and so we are going to continue to do that.”

After the ceremony, Tsutsui told The Maui News that he had not yet read the cease-and-desist letter, nor was he aware of any violations during the planning process.

“In fact, we tried to do extra steps that we didn’t need to because we wanted to make sure the county was on board,” Tsutsui said.

At a public meeting held at Pomaikai Elementary in April, Tsutsui said moving the sports complex to another location – as the Maui Lani Neighbors have proposed – would take at least another seven to 10 years to obtain the funding and permitting for the alternate site. Residents involved with athletic leagues testified against moving the sports complex, saying, “We need these fields now . . . not 10 years from now.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie, who attended the groundbreaking ceremony Thursday, said it will take time to resolve the disputes in the community.

“You can’t always agree on everything,” he said. But “as this evolves and the Central Maui sports regional complex takes on the character of the people who participate in it, no one will remember five years from now what the arguments were.”

* Eileen Chao can be reached at echao@mauinews.com.