MAALAEA - Affordable housing developer Jesse Spencer, who wants to build 1,100 homes in Maalaea, has been hit with several county citations that project opponents say add up to Spencer "jumping the gun" on his proposed Ohana Kai Village.
In the past month, the Maui County Planning and Public Works departments either have cited or warned Spencer about illegal grubbing and grading and rock-crushing operations.
And county officials said they have been flooded with complaints by residents, including Maalaea Community Association members, who oppose Ohana Kai.
Spencer Homes excavator operator Andrew Bartoces flattens the top of a mound of gravel Thursday afternoon. Maui County officials have cited the affordable housing developer for unpermitted grading and grubbing work at the site mauka of the intersection of Honoapiilani Highway and North Kihei Road. A company official said ongoing work at the site is for cleanup only.
The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo
Bill Frohlich of P.B. Sullivan Construction Inc. hoses down a power screener Thursday. “If this shuts down, a lot of us are going to be out of work,” Frohlich said.
The Maui News MATTHEW THAYER photo
In an interview this week, Spencer said his company may have made some minor mistakes, but Spencer Homes Inc. is not operating a quarry, as his opponents allege.
He's employed 25 people with jobs that pay between $30 and $40 an hour since January to either prepare the land for Ohana Kai - if and when it gets state and Maui County approvals to go forward - or make the 257 acres more viable for the existing use of cattle grazing.
Since the first week of January, the area along Honoapiilani Highway was been busy with bulldozers, backhoes, a crusher, sifters, graders and water trucks.
"We never intended to get into the quarrying business, so we don't understand what's so objectionable," Spencer said. "We did it to get a head start on our work. . . . We are not digging."
On Wednesday, the Public Works Department's Development Services Administration issued a notice of violation along with a $400 fine to Spencer Homes for going beyond the 1-acre scope of his grading and grubbing permits, according to county documents. On Jan. 21, Spencer's company was issued a $200 fine for the same offense.
In the interview with The Maui News, Spencer did not contest the allegation that company employees had worked beyond the 1-acre limit.
On Feb. 16, Planning Department inspectors found that Spencer's operation, without a required special use permit, was running a quarry on land zoned agricultural and ordered him to "cease immediately," according to the department's "first request to correct nonconformity" letter.
County Planning Director Jeff Hunt said Spencer complied this week with the latest warning and stopped unpermitted activities.
"We never did anything illegal out there," countered Spencer's project manager, Charlie Kulesa, in an interview.
He said if people see crews still working, they are only cleaning up the site.
Spencer said he hasn't decided whether he will appeal the violations but was worried they would stall his project further.
He said his employees were not "extracting natural formations," which he said is the legal definition of quarrying. He said they were breaking down piled boulders (only three of 17 piles remain now) that sugar growers had pulled out of the ground perhaps a century ago.
The crushed rock could be used to make roadbeds and foundations for Ohana Kai, or it could be mixed with the soil to grow more grass, depending on what happens with Ohana Kai, Spencer said.
Kulesa said the company has had an archaeologist on site to make certain employees aren't disturbing any iwi (Native Hawaiian ancestral remains) or artifacts.
Ohana Kai is a $500 million project that Spencer and local banks will finance, he said. Spencer said he wants the estimated seven-year project to start construction in August.
Plans include digging three potable water wells and a wastewater treatment facility.
Spencer said he intends to put Ohana Kai on the "fast track" through the state Land Use Commission's 201H affordable housing provision. He said that would come sometime after Ohana Kai's final environmental impact statement is finished as early as this week.
(State law allows affordable housing developments to bypass certain state and county land-use laws if approved through a "fast track" process.)
According to Spencer's previously released draft environmental impact statement, the developer "will be seeking exemptions from certain regulatory and statutory requirements relating to land use, construction, subdivision, public services, and infrastructure and administrative procedures."
However, Hunt said he opposes Ohana Kai at its current location mauka of Honoapiilani Highway and its intersection with North Kihei Road. It's a good project otherwise, Hunt said.
Mayor Charmaine Tavares supports Hunt's position, county spokeswoman Mahina Martin said Thursday.
Ohana Kai would be a bedroom community, Hunt said, outside of the development boundaries in the proposed Maui Island Plan, which is a master planning document currently before the County Council's Planning Committee.
Ohana Kai also would choke traffic and eliminate open green space, Hunt said Wednesday. Moreover, after many hours of public debate and hearings, both the General Plan Advisory Committee, which authored the Maui Island Plan's draft, and the Maui Planning Commission agreed with Hunt, he said.
Instead, Ohana Kai should be located within an urban-growth boundary supported by the general public, Hunt said.
Anti-Ohana Kai folks also oppose its proposed on-site wastewater injection wells and say construction runoff would continue to damage reefs and marine life off Maalaea.
"The public has also expressed very little support for this," Hunt said. "The consensus is that it's a bad location for growth."
Spencer disagreed with those assertions. He noted that Ohana Kai's previous incarnation, the Maalaea Mauka project district, has been in the area's community plan since 1998. It was the recent authors of the Maui Island Plan, which still needs council approval, who yanked it out of the new overarching master plan called the General Plan Update 2030.
Spencer needs County Council approval for Ohana Kai to get the fast-track designation. He also needs the signatures of several department heads for final approval of the project's environmental impact statement, he said, including Housing and Human Concerns Deputy Director Jo-Ann Ridao.
What does Ohana Kai have to do with allegations of illegal quarrying and grading and grubbing?
Plenty, opponents said.
"If you're going to do something, you have to do it by the law," said Maalaea Community Association Vice President Kent Michaud. "Enough is enough as far as him changing the land and making his own way of doing things. He is out of line on this, and he needs to be corrected.
"We're not against people wanting to build," Michaud said. "It's just what he's doing and wants to do that we oppose."
Martin said county officials can understand why the residents would assume that the rock crushing and grubbing and grading would lead people to believe Ohana Kai is coming.
"The county recognizes that Mr. Spencer is passionate and enthusiastic about helping to get homes built, but it's important to recognize that community engagement is important; so is working in conjunction with local government," Martin said.
Spencer said more than 4,000 people are on the waiting list for homes in Ohana Kai.
With affordable housing such an important issue here, Martin said, she is eager for elected officials and the Tavares administration to find a compromise.
Over the years, Spencer has constructed hundreds of homes for working families.
Most of Ohana Kai homes would go for as little as $275,000 with the rest selling for, at most, $525,000, he said. All the homes would include photovoltaic, clean-energy systems, which contributed to the higher-than-usual prices for typical Spencer Homes, he said.
Hunt said Spencer has the right under county and state agricultural zoning laws to alter his property, to a certain degree.
"It's my land, and I have a right to recycle the rock for some future use," Spencer said.
Michaud said he wasn't confident in the county's ability to stay on top of Spencer for any future violations or to halt his plans for Ohana Kai.
"Mr. Spencer is going to do what he wants to do, and there's nothing we can do to stop it," Michaud said.
Spencer, though, said he had no idea anyone would object to rock crushing or getting a "head start" on Ohana Kai. He said he is meeting a great Valley Isle need: affordable housing.
"I think there are just about 20 people in Maalaea who just don't want any neighbors," Spencer said.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at chamilton @mauinews.com.