WAILUKU - After nearly a year of being reviewed by the Maui County Council Budget and Finance Committee, the County Council in a surprising twist voted unanimously Friday to pull the measure out of committee and to preliminarily approve the purchase of 186 acres at Launiupoko for $13 million as the landowner's end-of-the-year deadline approached.
A second and final vote on the land deal is set for early January, past the Dec. 31 deadline, but the council vote appeared to satisfy the current landowners, who remained committed to the deal.
"My committee has been very diligent and patient with the chair in reviewing all aspects of this acquisition proposal. I agree that the council deserves an opportunity to vote on this . . . before the clock runs out," Budget and Finance Committee Chairman Mike White said after he seconded the motion to take the item from his committee and to put it to a vote by the full council.
Prospects for the Launiupoko land deal seemed dim after the last Maui County Council meeting Dec. 6 when council members failed to secure the five votes needed to pull the measure out of committee, let alone vote on the merits of the purchase.
Though White had voiced support for securing the land for the county, he also wanted to be "responsible with taxpayers' money." White criticized what he saw as a "significantly flawed" appraisal process Mayor Alan Arakawa's administration used to negotiate the $13 million asking price. He disputed giving value to parcels that the owners of the site called "nondevelopable." The value should have been zero for those parcels, he said.
Despite having "my own feelings" about the appraisal process, White joined the other seven council members present at the Maui County Council meeting Friday and voted to support the deal. Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa was excused.
"This has been a long time coming for sure, and it took this long to get here because I feel that with all those numbers being tossed around . . . we had every right to do our due diligence like we did," said Council Member Elle Cochran, who holds the council's West Maui residency seat.
The mayor's administration has reported that the landowner's original asking price was $16 million but was reduced after an ACM appraisal valued the land at $13 million. However, two subsequent appraisals ordered by White's committee last month both came back under $10 million - a reappraisal by ACM valued the land at $9.4 million and another done by The Hallstrom Group valued the land at $6.6 million.
A spokesman for landowner Makila Land Co. argued at a meeting earlier this month that the landowners could go out and order their own appraisal, which would "likely come back with a number more than $13 million" and that the $13 million agreed upon with the county administration was a bargain.
Council members seemed skeptical of that claim Friday with several councilors admitting that they had lingering concerns about the $13 million price tag but would vote in support of the resolution to honor the landowner's firm Dec. 31 deadline.
"I've had a lot of calls and emails from my community constituents, and I will . . . stand up for what they want," Cochran said. "But the county isn't made out of endless amounts of money, so $13 million may not sound like a lot, but it is. That's just the purchase price . . . There's also interest for the next 20 years, labor and maintenance for the park, on and on. It doesn't stop at $13 million."
"Come tax time and revenues have to be generated somehow, well, that's where we got to look," Cochran said of possibly having to raise taxes.
Other council members echoed Cochran's concerns.
"Testifiers have said this would be a great Christmas present, but like most Christmas shoppers, we buy a lot of things and don't realize what we've spent until after we get the bill," Council Member Riki Hokama said. "I have been rarely wrong on fiscal matters through my tenure serving this community, I think 99 percent (certain) we gonna raise taxes. When the tax bill comes, these are things you asked the council to provide, I believe we gonna make some major tax structure adjustments. That's how we gonna pay the bill."
Council Member Michael Victorino suggested the county look at applying "user fees" in the future as a way to offset costs.
"They pay at Hanauma Bay to use the beach and other beaches on Oahu, no questions," Victorino said. "Maybe we gotta do something like that."
Nevertheless, Victorino said that "today is a milestone" in preserving open space along West Maui's shore for many generations to come.
"This is for my grandchildren, great grandchildren. . . . I like to see open space, I like driving through and not looking at mega-mansions and other things right smack dab in front of me. I think this is a good, good first step. I know we lost Olowalu and some other sections (along the Pali to Puamana shoreline), let's not lose any more," Victorino said.
Steve Goodfellow, one of the partners of landowner Makila Land Co., told The Maui News after he heard the County Council's decision: "It's a historic day for Maui."
"I'm very excited about it, the whole Pali to Puamana park, all the work that's gone into that project for 12 years, this is a huge step forward in bringing that to a reality, and it'll be a legacy for generations to come," Goodfellow said in a phone interview. "I'm very gratified we had a unanimous vote by the council, (they) and the administration have stepped up and said, 'We're going to make this happen.' ''
Goodfellow added that the land acquisition would give the county "a lot more options" with the existing roadway after an alternative highway is built mauka above the property, which the landowners have promised to do as part of the deal.
Arakawa's office also expressed elation at the County Council's vote of approval of the land deal.
"This is a holiday miracle, it's great," said county spokesman Rod Antone. "We made the deadline so the deal is alive. The owners know that this whole year has not been in vain."
Council Member Don Guzman advocated the administration and County Council "work together" in the future on acquisition deals like this, instead of "leaving these (walls) up and making decisions at the very end when we're back against a corner on deadline."
White had mentioned the possibility of working with the administration to renegotiate the terms of the deal, suggesting that instead of paying $13 million all in cash, the county could offer the owners a portion of the value in land entitlements for developments mauka.
Administration and landowner representatives said Friday that such a renegotiation of the terms for this deal was "not likely."
"In concept, it's not a bad idea . . . but at this point, I think we just want to go by the terms of the contract. I'm afraid if we start getting into it . . . I see it as a long difficult process, and at this point I don't think that's realistic," Goodfellow said.
After the item is approved by council members in a second and final reading, most likely at the next scheduled County Council meeting Jan. 11, Goodfellow said the contract probably will be updated if needed and signed with the administration. He hopes the transaction can close within the next two to three months.
More than 20 people signed up to testify on the Launiupoko land purchase at the start of the meeting Friday, nearly all in favor of the county paying $13 million to secure the deal.
Lifelong Lahaina resident Anita Yamafuji, who was one of about two dozen Lahaina Honolua Senior Citizens Club members to attend the Friday meeting, said in testimony that the land was "priceless."
"I remember the old plantation days with a few camps and lots of open space, we'd walk to the beach. . . . There were only a handful of houses by the ocean at that time," Yamafuji said. "Things have changed, we can hardly see the ocean and need to find access by going through private property to get to the beach . . . This property is priceless and will be there for our children and grandchildren to enjoy years to come."
In other matters, the council unanimously approved a bill amending the circuit breaker tax credit, a program developed in the early 1990s to protect those with limited incomes, longtime residents and kupuna from escalating property assessments.
The bill passed Friday extends the filing deadline a month to Jan. 31, and White encouraged all homeowners who qualified for the tax break last year to apply again this year. Council members will be working on a revision of the measure, which was passed earlier this year to catch cheaters but also may be excluding those who actually need it.
The council also passed on second and final reading:
* A bill amending the budget to correctly reflect general obligation bonds used in the Kalana O Maui campus expansion design of Phase 1A.
* A bill granting Grace Pacific LLC a conditional permit to re-establish a hot mix asphalt plant operation on Molokai.
The council passed on first reading, which requires another vote to become law:
* A bill appropriating $33,000 to install four lights at the football field at Lahaina Recreation Center. The field is currently used for football, soccer, rugby and other sports.
* A bill appropriating $335,000 to resurface two tennis courts and to rebuild two tennis courts at the Lahaina Civic Center Tennis Complex.
* A bill approving the acquisition of two parcels of land required for the construction of the Hauoli Street Drainage Improvements Project in Maalaea.
* A bill extending the deadline for the council to enact the Maui Island Plan's implementation program from Dec. 28 to March 31.
* Eileen Chao can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.