Developer wants to nix public access after county fails to purchase land

Cochran: If property is already a greenway, why pay millions for it?

Public access for this 38-acre undevelopable agricultural lot, part of the Makila Ranches project in Launiupoko, was debated in the Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday. The developer is seeking to remove a condition requiring access to the lot after a deal to purchase the lot by the county fell through. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Public access for this 38-acre undevelopable agricultural lot, part of the Makila Ranches project in Launiupoko, was debated in the Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday. The developer is seeking to remove a condition requiring access to the lot after a deal to purchase the lot by the county fell through. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

When the Makila Ranches project received its permit in 2014, the developer agreed to provide public access to 38 acres of soon-to-be county property in Launiupoko.

But the county’s plans to purchase the “nondevelopable lot” fell through. And now Makila Land Co., which is building mauka of the lot, has asked the Maui Planning Commission to remove two permit conditions related to the failed purchase, including one that would require opening the roadway that leads to the private, 38-acre lot.

“Now that that land is not going to be owned by the county and is going to stay in private ownership, there would be no need for public access to that private lot,” land and planning consultant Rory Frampton said.

But the Planning Department worries that this will limit shoreline access, and that future agricultural activity on the lot would keep the county from buying it in the future.

On Tuesday, the commission deferred the issue after struggling to reach consensus on two different votes. Some wanted to revisit the original special management area use permit application before making a decision.

The 38 acres of open space provide a buffer between the the Makila Ranches project and Honapiilani Highway. The 38 acres were part of a larger, 186-acre parcel the county had hoped to buy but did not.

The 38 acres of open space provide a buffer between the the Makila Ranches project and Honapiilani Highway. The 38 acres were part of a larger, 186-acre parcel the county had hoped to buy but did not.

Makila Ranches Phase II project calls for the development of 11 agricultural lots on 214 acres mauka of Honoapiilani Highway, between Launiupoko and Puamana beach parks. The 38 acres of open space provide a buffer between the project and the highway. The roadway that developers had planned to open to the public runs between the 11 lots and the buffer.

The 38 acres were part of a larger, 186-acre parcel the county had hoped to buy.

In December 2013, the County Council approved the purchase of the 186 acres along the highway in Launiupoko in a high profile clash between Mayor Alan Arakawa and council Chairman Mike White over the price.

The county bought the first 148 acres in February 2014, Frampton said. But days before Makila Land Co. was going to ink the contract for the second parcel in August 2015, the administration told the company that funding had lapsed. The mayor again asked the council for funds, but members voted against it last May.

“I’m rather disappointed in the council that they didn’t choose to follow through with the purchase of this lot, because I feel there’s a definite public benefit in owning this,” Planning Director Will Spence said. “I still share the concern . . . that if the roadway is gated off it will add complications if the next council would like to purchase it. Then you’re negotiating with a whole lot of landowners instead of the one landowner.”

The agricultural lot, part of the Makila Ranches project in Launiupoko, is already considered a greenway. Residential dwellings cannot be built there. Farms, fruit stands and farm-related structures are among the allowed uses. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

The agricultural lot, part of the Makila Ranches project in Launiupoko, is already considered a greenway. Residential dwellings cannot be built there. Farms, fruit stands and farm-related structures are among the allowed uses. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

But council members thought the 38-acre parcel was overvalued, White explained Wednesday. They had only agreed to purchase it in 2013 as part of a “package deal.”

The 186 acres were supposed to go for $13 million — $9.9 million for the first parcel and $3.1 million for the second.

“The council was pressured by the administration to pay for the 37.7-acre parcel at a developable rate, despite the fact that, whether the county purchased it or not, it would not be developed,” White said. “However, at the time, to obtain the much more valuable 148-acre parcel, the council agreed to move forward with the ‘package deal’ purchase.”

Neither White nor Council Member Elle Cochran, who holds the West Maui residency seat, believed removing the two conditions from Makila Land Co.’s permit would affect shoreline access. Cochran described the 38 acres as dry, rocky “scrub land” that the developer couldn’t build on anyway.

“It kept being painted as ‘save the shoreline,’ when I’m like, how is it saving the shoreline if it’s not even near it?” Cochran asked. “I’m all about open space, greenways, walkable, bikeable, but if this land is already being considered a greenway . . . then why are we paying millions for it?”

Because the lot is “non developable,” residential dwellings cannot be built on it, Frampton said. Farms, fruit stands and farm-related structures are among the allowed uses.

Spence and planning staff were concerned that if homeowners used the space for agriculture and other activities, eventually the county would lose its chance to buy the property.

Commissioners asked if the Makila Ranches project could continue even with the permit conditions. (The other condition was that the company understood “the relationship between” permit approval and the county’s pending purchase.)

“I don’t see this slowing you down,” commissioner Keaka Robinson said.

Staff planner Kurt Wollenhaupt suggested a different condition: that if the county did purchase the 38-acre lot later on, a public access roadway would be guaranteed “at no cost to the county.”

But uncertainty over who would own the lot would make it difficult to market the nearby properties, Frampton said.

“It leaves the landowner in limbo in terms of what they represent to the buyers,” Frampton said. “They want to market the properties at the highest and best use. It’s a totally different story whether or not that land is publicly owned versus privately owned.”

The landowners might also want the option of putting a gate along the private road, Frampton said. Cochran didn’t think this would hurt shoreline access; the roadway is more of “an internal thing” for the future buyers than for beach-goers, she said.

As for whether the council would consider purchasing the property in the future, White said “it would depend on the price and also the purpose.”

“If the parcel of land is going to stay in open-space anyway, there are many other parcels of land that I believe the community would much rather preserve from development,” he said.

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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