WAILUKU - Nearly a dozen testifiers Wednesday spoke in favor of a proposed 48-unit affordable single-family housing project in Waikapu, saying they need "a place to call home."
"I'm from Napili . . . and I've never testified before, but I drove over here because that's how passionate I am about this," said Joseph Scalzo, who testified before the County Council's Land Use Committee on the Waikapu Gardens Phase II.
"I certainly would like this in Napili," said Scaizo, who works at The Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua and cannot afford to buy a market-priced home. "I don't really want to drive 45 minutes to work, but I'm willing to do it (because) I need this."
Council members expressed some concern about the exemptions sought by developer JES Corp. permitted under the "fast track"-201H approval process for affordable housing, including allowing the project to be built without changing its agricultural zoning, the waiving of fees and not requiring amenities such as curbs and sidewalks.
The proposed 10.5-acre project is located in a block of land mauka of the intersection of East Waiko and Waiale roads. The clock is ticking on the 100 percent affordable housing project seeking 201H approval by the County Council, which must act by Oct. 10.
Under the proposal, house-lot packages would be priced for three income groups from 80 to 140 percent of Maui's median income. Lot sizes range from 5,000 to 9,000 square feet with three-bedroom, two-bath models and four-bedroom, three-bath models. The homes will range from 1,200 to 1,800 square feet.
Police officer John Surina, who is expecting his first child, backed the project, saying that he cannot afford a market-priced home while supporting his wife and two rescue dogs.
"Houses are becoming less affordable every day," Surina said.
Fellow officer Jeffrey Calibuso echoed his colleague, testifying that it was "impossible" to own a home, while trying to support his wife and four children.
"I tried to buy a house five years ago, but due to the high costs of living it was too difficult to maintain the mortgage," said the Wailuku resident after the meeting. "So when an opportunity like this comes up, you have to jump on it."
The topic of affordable housing also was close to Kihei resident Mele Strickland, whose son lives with her after serving in Afghanistan with the airborne infantry from 2009 to 2010.
"I was always trying to think of positive things to tell him, and one was focus on (buying) a home," she said about her talks with her son while he was in Afghanistan. "With all he was doing out there, I told him he could get a home with the G.I. Bill.
"His driving force was the house, the house, the house."
Appearing on behalf of JES Corp., which developed the neighboring 411-unit affordable housing subdivision Waikapu Gardens, Doug Spencer said that "the heart" of the current project is the benefit to "working people on Maui."
"In 1964 (JES Corp.) built their first houses," Spencer said. "Fifty years later and almost a thousand homes later you might ask, 'Haven't you built enough?' I would say check with the people that are still asking for (affordable housing).
"That's what we're here to do."
Jeff Gray, a self-employed contractor from Kahakuloa, said he was one of those people requesting affordable housing units.
"I have never been able to afford a house, but Jesse Spencer (JES principal) has helped a lot of people," he said. "When they asked me to testify, I thought, 'Well what am I going to say.' But then I thought, 'Who would be against affordable housing?' ''
Although all testifiers spoke in favor of the project, council members requested additional time to review about 15 exemptions the developer has proposed. The council also asked for the costs tied to the exemptions that included not having to put in curbs, gutters and sidewalks and to pay for sewer-system hookups.
The decision by the developers not to seek conforming zoning troubled Council Member Riki Hokama.
"The council works really hard at defining agricultural lands and uses," he said. "I would hate to throw that work out for one project."
County Planning Director Will Spence said he would have preferred a change to residential zoning to make the development "a lot cleaner," because "there is nothing about this project that is agricultural."
Council Member Don Couch had concerns about exempting the developers from constructing curbs, gutters and sidewalks surrounding their property.
"Are we going to say they don't have to put these in - which I support - but further down the line the county will ultimately have to pay for?" he asked.
Spence, who was asked a similar question by Hokama, characterized the decision as a political question that the council would have to decide.
"It certainly reduces the cost of housing, but is the public best served granting all these exemptions and have the public pay the bill?" he said. "I don't know."
After the meeting, Spence said that "the whole idea behind the 201H is that it's supposed to be a faster approval process." All that's required is an environmental impact statement and approval by the County Council, he said.
If the same project were to go through the regular zoning change process, it would take about two years and a couple hundred thousand dollars before construction could begin, Spence said.
The money saved in the "fast-track" process through the exemptions and the time restrictions for approvals are, theoretically, what helps create the affordable housing, he explained.
The project also calls for a 60,000-square-foot neighborhood commercial center that could include a convenience store and other businesses. This raised a concern for Council Member Mike Victorino.
The proposed project, which is near busy Honoapiilani Highway and the Maui Lani subdivision, will increase traffic and not be required to make traffic improvements.
"Right now, Longs is right down the road," Victorino said. "You got Foodland coming up and Safeway coming up, so that corner store really needs to meet a community need, rather than a regional need.
"I think that's our concern. So a gasoline station; I don't think it fits there."
At the conclusion of the meeting, committee Chairman Robert Carroll deferred the matter to 9 a.m. Sept. 12 in Council Chambers.
* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@maui news.com.