MAKAWAO - Xorin Balbes maintains that he renovated a historic landmark and created a self-awareness retreat, Lumeria Maui, while at least one opponent to reopening the Fred Baldwin Memorial Home said it looks more "like the Ritz."
Opponents characterize Balbes' renovations to the former site of Maunaolu College and the U.S. Job Corps as the creation of a 24-room hotel, and they object to Maui County officials allowing the project at 1813 Baldwin Ave. to proceed as a historic property in an agricultural district.
However, officials and Balbes said everything was done aboveboard. And Balbes, a former Los Angeles interior designer, is unapologetic for the retreat's luxurious appeal.
Spiritualist and former interior designer Xorin Balbes stands on the interior grounds of the Fred Baldwin Memorial Home, or Lumeria Maui. Some opponents call it a small hotel, but he said he rebuilt the former Maunaolu College site, a former dorm for pineapple workers, and created an educational retreat.
The Maui News / CHRIS HAMILTON photo
It's just his natural aesthetic, he said.
Balbes said he already has a grandfathered county occupancy permit to allow for a 24-dorm facility, which he could open immediately. But he's waiting for county approval for his plans to open a 6,000-square-foot classroom building and a 30-by-60-foot therapeutic pool.
The Maui Planning Commission needs to review Balbes' plans for the classroom facility, which would be for classes in subjects such as yoga, metaphysics and Native Hawaiian culture. Lumeria Maui is seeking a state district boundary amendment from agricultural to rural for the new classroom building and a state special use permit for activities in the state agricultural district.
The commission is scheduled to take up the matter Jan. 10.
With double occupancy, the retreat's dormitory can house up to 48 people.
Project opponents include neighbors Trip and Deb Lynch. They said "just about everyone who passes calls it 'that hotel.' "
"It sure doesn't look like any dorm I had in college," said Trip Lynch, who admires Balbes' renovation work. "It looks like the Ritz."
It has a communal kitchen and dining area where guests will be offered fine dining and field-to-plate meals.
Deb Lynch said many people waited for years to get a room or two for a bed-and-breakfast business, "and, boom, here he comes and gets 24 rooms."
Department of Planning Deputy Director Michele Chouteau McLean said Balbes did "a fantastic job" renovating the Baldwin home.
The use of historic properties is allowed in state agricultural districts, she said.
"Because of the historic renovation, we said he would be allowed to resume dormitory uses," she added.
The property's state district designation is agriculture while it's public/quasi-public in the Makawao-Pukalani-Kula Community Plan and it's zoned interim, Chouteau McLean said.
"We have made it abundantly clear that the only people who are allowed to stay at the center are students who are enrolled in the classes," she said. "It is first and foremost an education center.
"For someone coming from a high-stress job in a city, it will certainly be a retreat. But it won't be a lay-by-the-pool retreat," she said.
She also noted that there were no objections when the property was used as dormitories recently for Maui Land & Pineapple workers, and "people have been living there for decades." Permits are needed only for the classroom and pool activities to be held on the grounds, she said.
Balbes said he already has state and federal historic preservation protection for the 22,000-square-foot, five-building property on 6 acres two miles from Paia.
Balbes and his partner of 7 years, Jason Workman, spent "at least several million" to restore the crumbling Baldwin home, originally built in 1909, "from the foundation up" over the past year and half, he said.
After World War II, the home was used as a convalescence hospital for returning veterans, he said. In the 1950s and 1960s, it was the site of Maunaolu College. And later, it was the used by the U.S. Job Corps.
The home was last used by ML&P to house mostly migrant workers from Micronesia a couple years ago. About 140 workers lived at one time in the dorms, Balbes said.
According to the county Real Property Tax Division, the Makawao property sold for nearly $1.3 million in November of 2009 to Balbes' company, which was at first known as SoulSpace LLC.
Balbes said he has high hopes for the educational retreat center, with nearly two-dozen employees at the historic Fred Baldwin Memorial Home. The spiritualist said he's helping to create a place where people can connect with their "authentic selves."
"My feeling is that Maui holds the key to what's possible for the rest of the world," he said. "Maui's energy and aloha is profound. And, hopefully, if I can draw people here, they will spread to the rest of the world that aloha and energy."
Trip Lynch and retired Maui Community College professor Dick Mayer said it seems as though Balbes is benefiting from "spot zoning." They said they don't believe the process was done correctly.
Mayer said he has concerns about traffic and parking, but Balbes said those issues will be addressed with parking on the property.
Trip Lynch said he also was worried that once Balbes gets his permits he may sell the property for a profit. Balbes, though, said he has no intention of leaving.
He said he wants peace with his neighbors and wants people to understand that he is committed to the community and doing the project right. He added that he has tried to resolve conflicts and is willing to speak with anyone with concerns.
But Balbes said he will keep class prices in the affordable range for Maui residents. And he added that his clientele will spend money in other local businesses, too.
His contact information can be found on the website, lumeriamaui.com.
* Chris Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article includes a correction from the original published on Sunday, December 18, 2011. The date for the commission meeting is Jan. 10. The Maui News apologizes for the error.