West Maui Land Co. received four votes - two short of the six required for a land reclassification - from members of the state Land Use Commission on Thursday.
The panel's vote is a major, possibly fatal, setback for the 68-lot Kahoma affordable housing project backed by Mayor Alan Arakawa's administration, the state Office of Planning and the Maui County Council through its approval of the project last year as a fast-track development.
Coming during a meeting at the Courtyard Maui Kahului Airport hotel, the vote came with no comment during the meeting from dissenting commission members Sheldon Biga of Maui, Ernest Matsumura of the Big Island and Nicholas Teves Jr., an at-large member.
Voting in favor of the project were commission Chairman Kyle Chock, an at-large member; Vice Chairman Chad McDonald, an at-large member; Thomas Contrades, a Kauai member; and Lance Inouye, an at-large member. Two commission members were absent, Ronald Heller of Oahu and Jaye Napua Makua, an at-large member.
After the meeting, Biga declined comment. Teves said that he usually supports affordable housing projects but not the Kahoma project at its proposed location.
Project coordinator Heidi Bigelow said that she was disappointed after the commission's vote, particularly because those voting "no" didn't explain why they voted against the project.
"There's a huge need for affordable housing in West Maui," she said. "It's a big loss for the West Maui community."
She pointed out that the Kahoma project has been included in the urban-growth boundaries in the Maui Island Plan, now pending before the County Council.
Bigelow said that the commission's vote also was a financial setback for West Maui Land, which has invested $600,000 in environmental studies, fees for attorneys and consultants for planning, traffic engineering, archaeology and a cultural expert.
The project was opposed by interveners Michele Lincoln, a Lahaina resident who lives near the project site, and Routh Bolomet of Oahu. They argued that the land should remain an agricultural open area.
Lincoln said she was thankful and surprised by the commission's vote.
"It shows me that the state Land Use Commission does care about the future of Hawaii," she said. "It's not always about money and the people in power but that they are working for the people.
"The main thing is the truth came out, and they acted on that," she said.
Started in 2004 and planned as a fast-tracked housing development, the project sought Land Use Commission approval to reclassify 16.7 acres from agricultural to urban. Project plans called for selling the homes to families with incomes of 160 percent of median income and below. The development would have been built on former sugar cane land between the Kahoma Stream flood control channel and homes mauka of the former Pioneer Mill.
In oral arguments, West Maui Land attorney James Geiger said that the project's agricultural land is surrounded on all sides by urban development, with homes on three sides and a light-industrial subdivision on the fourth.
It made common sense for the land to be used for affordable housing because there's an urgent need for homes on Maui and particularly in West Maui, Geiger said.
The property itself is marginal agricultural land, which because of its odd shape and stony soil would not be viable for farming, he said.
Geiger said that the project's traffic impacts would be mitigated by roadway improvements, and there was no evidence of archaeological features on the property, although project opponents dispute that.
Attorneys representing Maui County and the state Office of Planning gave statements in support of the project's request for land reclassification.
Lincoln delivered an impassioned 25-minute plea to reject the developer's request for land reclassification.
"Just because I'm not an expert does not mean I'm not right," she told commissioners. "This petition does not measure up."
She argued that the land could be used for agriculture.
"The only thing that's missing is the farmer," Lincoln said.
She maintained that the land could be turned into an ecotourism business, showing visitors what can be grown in the area.
Lincoln said that the project would have an adverse impact on West Maui's overcrowded schools and on the area's water and wastewater infrastructure.
In rebuttal, Geiger said project opponents presented arguments, not facts based on testimony or evidence.
"You have to act on facts," he said.
Geiger said everything that was brought before the commission as project objections had been addressed.
West Maui Land would review its options following Thursday's vote, Bigelow said.
Those may include reconfiguring the project or asking the commission for reconsideration, she said.
If the project were less than 15 acres, it would not need a state land use district boundary amendment.
But Bigelow said developers proceeded with a 16.7-acre project, believing its merits spoke for themselves. Developers' plans included a park, wider-than-required interior roads and bike paths.
"We did not want to cut corners," she said. "We wanted a good project."
Bigelow said that West Maui Land would wait for the commission's written findings of facts, decision and order.
"Then, we'll know what action to take," she said.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.