KAANAPALI - Community groups and critics of two proposed large shopping centers in Kihei were successful Friday in persuading the state Land Use Commission to hold a hearing to revisit the project.
The critics say Eclipse Development Group's Maui Outlets and Piilani Promenade projects have substantially changed from the light industrial park reviewed by the commission more than 15 years ago. Preliminary work has begun on the project mauka of Piilani Highway.
Meeting at the Royal Lahaina Resort, the six Land Use Commission members present - with three absent and excused - voted unanimously to grant a motion to have an order to show cause hearing on the matter. A date has yet to be set.
Maui Tomorrow Foundation, South Maui Citizens for Responsible Growth and Kihei resident Daniel Kanahele launched the legal challenge, claiming that Eclipse Development has failed to abide by some of the 20 conditions the commission imposed on former landowner Kaonoulu Ranch in granting a land reclassification from agriculture to urban in 1995.
The groups filing the challenge say the plans presented before the LUC in 1995 were for a light industrial park.
But Eclipse officials have previously said, and maintained Friday, that plans for the property have always included the possibility of retail stores.
Commissioner Lance Inouye made the motion to hold a hearing, noting that the commission wants to "hear if these conditions have been met."
He noted that in time the market changes and project plans may also change.
But "we need to be kept apprised of those things," he said.
Inouye said he wasn't sure if the project in its new version also would affect traffic.
But, on the other hand, Inouye said he didn't want the LUC to be a crutch to development either.
"In the real world, we got to get projects moving," Inouye said adding he wanted the process before the commission to be expedited.
Fellow commissioner Sheldon Biga of Maui, seconded the motion, also agreeing with Inouye that he wanted the process to proceed quickly through the LUC. He said he understands that many residents are relying on the project for jobs.
But he added: "Again, there's a lot of questions, and it needs to be looked at."
Commission Vice Chairman Ronald Heller, who led the meeting, stressed that the LUC was not finding any wrongdoing or making any decisions about the project Friday. He said Friday's meeting was to decide if the commission should proceed with an order to show cause hearing.
After the hearing Tom Blackburn-Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Piilani Promenade project, said: "We are pleased that the commission listened completely to all the arguments."
He said he was confident that the developers "will prevail" during the order to show cause hearing.
He added that Friday's decision was not a vote on the merits of the project, but a matter of moving along with the process.
Other than having staged equipment and erecting a dust fence on the development site, which is mauka of the Piilani Highway-Kaonoulu Street intersection, ground has not been broken for the project out of respect for the ongoing legal processes and the community, Blackburn-Rodriguez said.
Also after the hearing, attorney Tom Pierce, who represents the three parties asking for the order to show cause hearing, said: "We are very pleased with the ruling."
"We look forward to going on to the next step," added Irene Bowie, executive director of Maui Tomorrow.
During the hearing, Pierce told commissioners that his clients are not against jobs or housing, but "what we have today is a project that recently came to light."
He said the original project, which involved a light industrial park, consisted of 123 lots, now the project is made up of four large lots and also includes 250 affordable home units.
"They don't look the same," Pierce said.
He added that a point made by Kaonoulu when it went before the LUC to get a land reclassification, was that the project would actually reduce traffic by reducing the need for South Maui residents to travel to Central Maui as the industrial area would be place for entrepreneurs to start their businesses.
But that's not the case now, Pierce said. Instead, Eclipse expects traffic to be about seven times the amount from what it was when the initial project was proposed, he said.
Honolulu attorney Jonathan Steiner, representing the landowners, told commissioners that Piilani Promenade will invest more than $20 million in highway and water infrastructure as well as begin a portion of the Kihei-to-Upcountry highway.
The "majority are things directly tied to the projected and will benefit the county as a whole," Steiner said.
He added that commissioners in 1995 were made aware that in the long term the market would determine what happens to the property and that the light industrial park was just "one conceptional option" for the land.
Steiner said Eclipse is also looking to get a tenant that is involved with home improvement and could supply contractor trades, which qualifies for light industrial.
Maui County lawyers and attorneys from Honua'ula Partners, which would develop the housing, generally contended that in 1995 the LUC put no special conditions on retail or housing, the projects' current plans should be allowed to proceed.
The state Office of Planning, who also made a presentation before the commission, has recommended the LUC revisit the project. State planning officials said they would have preferred the developers had come to them for an amendment regarding the shopping center project.
Office of Planning attorney Bryan Yee said that, for example, other developers have come before the commission when projects have changed from a golf course to a residential project and also from a sports complex to a commercial project.
Yee noted that the Office of Planning could not find a light industrial use listed for the current project.
Even though the developers may be looking for some light industrial tenants, those are not part of current plans, Yee said.
Fourteen people also testified before the commission. Several were union officials noting that many jobs could come out of the Piilani Promenade project. Others testifiers expressed the notable differences between the light industrial park and the shopping center proposal, including the major increases in traffic.
Blackburn-Rodriguez presented the commission with 500 signed cards of those who support the shopping center and housing project.
Kaonoulu Ranch sold the property in 2005 - subject to the Land Use Commission's conditions - to Maui Industrial Partners. Maui Industrial Partners in turn sold three-fourths of the property in 2010 to Piilani Promenade North LLC and Piilani Promenade South LLC.
The remaining one-fourth was retained for workforce housing units for Honua'ula's residential development.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.