WAILUKU - The state Land Use Commission voted 6-1 Monday to approve a reclassification of a little more than 545 acres in Central Maui to make way for A&B Properties' plans to develop the Wai'ale master-planned community.
The vote came after hours of public testimony, oral arguments from attorneys and short deliberations by commission members at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center's Alexa Higashi meeting room.
Public testimony began with labor union representatives providing their support for the development of 2,250 homes, commercial areas, a middle school, public facilities and parks in an area bisected by East Waiko Road, with Kuihelani Highway to the east and Honoapiilani Highway and Waikapu to the west.
"The project will be built in phases, and this will help keep Maui workers employed for a long time," said Leimomi Johnson, a Maui field representative/organizer for the Hawaii Laborers' Union, Local 368. "We have many members still not working and many others who want to keep working. We all want to be able to support our families, and this project will allow many Maui workers to do so."
Commissioners also heard from a half-dozen Native Hawaiians who questioned A&B's ownership of the land, the development's use of water and the treatment of ancestral burials on the property. Ke'eaumoku Kapu, chairman of the Maui/Lanai Island Burial Council, said burial sites need to be preserved for ancestors and descendants.
In untouched cultural areas, "we need to protect what is there," he said.
Commission Member Chad McDonald asked Kapu if the burial council approved the Wai'ale project's cultural preservation plan. Kapu said that he wasn't on the council from the beginning of the review of the project and that cultural sites were reviewed piecemeal, not as a whole.
Waihee resident Johanna Kamaunu cautioned against grading the property for development and treating discovered human remains as "inadvertent" or "unanticipated" findings.
At least 100 remains already have been found on the Wai'ale property.
And, "we know there's going to be more burials," Kamaunu said.
During his oral argument, A&B attorney Ben Matsubara acknowledged that the project site is recognized as a "culturally significant area" and said plans call for setting aside 33 acres as a cultural preserve, which would minimize the need to relocate burials.
As a result of an archaeological survey, 100 burials were found, he said, with 93 of those preserved in place and seven relocated.
Matsubara said that A&B's burial and preservation plan was presented to the Maui/Lanai Islands Burial Council for comment and to the State Historic Preservation Division for approval.
The preservation area will have a 50- to 100-foot buffer marked off and landscaped with Native Hawaiian vegetation, and there will be a walking path on the area's perimeter, he said. Only lineal descendants will be allowed within burial areas, he added.
Matsubara said that while there has been testimony before the commission about the project area being the site of one of Maui's most significant battles in ancient times (the battle of Kakanilu'a, the battle of sand dunes), A&B's archaeological expert maintains that the battle's exact location remains unknown, and that there's no evidence to support that any warriors perished on the site.
Construction workers on the project would receive a cultural orientation before beginning work, and the discovery of any skeletal remains would stop work, he said.
Commission Member Jaye Napua Makua voted against A&B's development plans, saying she was concerned about the impact the development would have on the cultural future of Hawaiians.
"The iwi kupuna (bones of ancestors) are part of our identity. They are who we are as Hawaiians," she said.
Makua said the commission has a responsibility to protect Native Hawaiian rights when they are jeopardized. The commission is required, at a minimum, to make specific findings and conclusions regarding the identity and scope of valued cultural, historical or natural resources in an area, including the extent to which traditional customary Native Hawaiian rights are exercised in an area, she said.
Makua said that she was troubled by the A&B's "insensitivity" in learning details of plans for the Wai'ale cultural preserve.
"Our iwi (ancestral bones) are buried, and those things are never to be looked at, or visited. . . . not like how we think of Western burials today," she said. "The thought of a sidewalk and a paved walkway so that people can view and visit the site makes my na'au (guts) turn."
She questioned the conclusions of A&B archaeologist Lisa Rotunno-Hazuka.
Makua recalled that in her testimony Rotunno-Hazuka assumed that because the bones of men, women and children were found at the project site, the male warriors' battle remains are not at Wai'ale and therefore not the site of the battle of Kakanilu'a.
"I do not believe this assumption," she said. "Personally, I know that women, my kupuna specifically, often fought alongside their men."
Commission Member Lisa Judge said that the A&B project is a good plan with many community benefits. She said that she recognized concerns about cultural resources on the land, but that the commission would impose conditions and rely on the diligence of state and county agencies to protect those resources.
Commission Member Ronald Heller said that while he respects Makua's knowledge and expertise in Hawaiian culture, "I do think there is a balancing that has to be done here."
"Obviously, the maximum in terms of preservation of cultural significance would be to just leave the land as is and do nothing," he said. "But obviously, there's also a need in our state for housing. There's also a need in our state for economic development. And I think it's part of our job to do some sort of balancing. . . . I think that on balance there's a reasonable effort here to build cultural preservation into the project."
A&B Properties Vice President Grant Chun said the project now advances to the Maui Planning Commission and Maui County Council for review of a community plan amendment and change of zoning. Applications for those land-use approvals have not yet been submitted, he said.
"There's a long process ahead of us," he said. "This is a very good first step."
* Brian Perry can be reached at email@example.com.