Two Maui Planning commissioners resign over Paia Inn vacation rental expansion permit

Judge’s order forces planning commission to authorize permit

Larry Hudson (right) hugs P. Denise La Costa after resigning from the Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday. Hudson stepped down to avoid having to approve a special use permit for the Paia Inn, which the commission has denied twice before. However, a judge’s order forced the commission to approve the permit on Tuesday. The Maui News / COLLEEN UECHI photo

WAILUKU — Two members of the Maui Planning Commission announced their resignations on Tuesday after a judge’s order forced the commission to approve a permit for Paia Inn that the panel had denied twice.

The commission voted on Tuesday to approve the Paia Inn’s request for a special use permit to operate as a nine-bedroom transient vacation rental. The inn currently has five guests rooms, and owner Michael Baskin wants to convert four offices into additional rooms.

“We are very pleased to have finally won this matter, and that the Paia Inn can move forward in a positive light,” Baskin said.

The vote brings a close to the drawn-out legal battle between Baskin and the county, which has levied dozens of citations and $500,000 in fines against Baskin over the years.

“I think you can see how it was,” said Christian Tackett, who was elected vice chairman on Tuesday. “We lost two members today. So it was a very difficult day for everybody.”

Kahu Alalani Hill thanks fellow commissioners after announcing her resignation, effective May 14.

The commission originally denied Baskin a permit in December 2016 because of his previous run-ins with the county. But Baskin appealed the permit denial, and a hearings officer — retired Judge E. John McConnell — held contested case hearings in April and May of last year. McConnell issued his report in July, stating that Baskin had met the criteria for a permit and recommending him for approval.

On Sept. 25, the commission voted 5-1 to reject McConnell’s recommendation. But in a surprising move on Nov. 27, the commission rescinded its decision with the goal of giving members more time to review and understand all the documentation in the complicated case. But with a bare quorum that day, the commission had to defer the issue.

On Dec. 11, the commission denied the permit once more, but by then, they’d missed a crucial deadline, Planning Director Michele McLean said.

“State law and the commission’s rules call for the commission to take action within a certain amount of time (60 days) after the closing of oral arguments has been made,” McLean explained. “And the commission did that. But then when the commission rescinded their vote in November, they weren’t able to take another vote until the following meeting (in December). They removed their previous vote and didn’t replace it with another one, and so that meant they did not render a decision within the prescribed time frame.”

That’s why 2nd Circuit Judge Peter Cahill issued an order requiring the commission to approve the permit application, McLean said.

MICHAEL BASKIN – Paia Inn owner

On the day that the commission rescinded its vote in November, the nine-member panel was down to five, McLean said. There was a motion to deny the permit, but it failed 4-1, and the issue had to be deferred. When asked if the department or corporation counsel had advised the commission of the 60-day clock, McLean said that “it was discussed previously, at the prior meeting when they denied the permit (Sept. 25) but not specifically when the 4-1 vote was taken on Nov. 27.”

On Tuesday, newly elected Chairman Lawrence Carnicelli recused himself from the vote as he has in the past, after Baskin’s lawyers filed a motion to disqualify him over allegations of bias.

Shortly before the vote, commissioner Larry Hudson announced he was resigning, said his goodbyes and walked out before the vote was taken.

“We were ordered to approve something, that permit from Seashore (Properties), I didn’t think it was right,” Hudson said afterwards. “I still don’t think it was right. But an order is an order, and the courts have the right to make that order. And I have the right to resign before I get party to that order.”

Hudson added that “I don’t think it’s a good fit for Paia,” and declined to comment further. Hudson, a retired assistant police chief who represented Wailuku, was slated to serve until March 31, 2020.

Kahu Alalani Hill also announced her resignation at the end of the meeting, effective May 14. She explained afterwards that “I had some things that have come up that came to a culmination today, and I’m realizing it’s my time to step down.” When asked if her resignation was because of the Paia Inn decision, Hill said “in part, yes.”

“We have gone through so much, and we did our best, the best as we knew how,” Hill said. “We had to vote today, and we did the right thing because the court told us that we had to. . . . But we’ve gone through a very big process for months as well, and it’s taken a lot of our time, devotion, energy and learning. And so everything works out the way it’s supposed to work out, hopefully, and that was definitely part of my decision of why I’m leaving.”

Hill joined in 2017 as the commission’s Hawaiian cultural adviser. She represented Kihei, with her term set to expire March 31, 2023.

According to the Maui County Charter, commissioners must be appointed by the mayor and approved by the Maui County Council.

Baskin added Tuesday that “with this matter resolved and behind us, we look forward to continuing to serve the Paia community.

“We will redirect our energies into further beautification of our town, contributing to our local charity organizations, creating jobs and helping to find solutions to issues facing our town,” Baskin said. “We look forward to working with our community and local government to fulfill these common goals. We will also continue to reach out to others in the spirit of cooperation to keep Paia a wonderful town.”

Francine “Aunty Mopsy” Aarona, who lives near the Paia Inn and has been a longtime critic of Baskin, said after the vote that, “it is what it is, I came to accept that.” However, Aarona blamed corporation counsel and the Planning Department, saying they should’ve advised the commission of any loopholes.

“People are disappointed,” she said. “They said, ‘Oh, he won.’ He didn’t win. He just won in material things. He didn’t win our fight to be who we are. He didn’t win or take away our right to fight for our aina. He didn’t take away the spirit that we have, to continue to move forward and to show the county that they need to stand by the people and not to allow these things to happen.”

McLean said she agreed that the department and corporation counsel “should have made it clearer to the commission on Nov. 27.” However, she added, “we did not see a loophole at that time.”

“This was such a complex and prolonged and contentious matter,” McLean said. “There were so many considerations, and unfortunately that was not made clear to the commission on that day. But it was not a case of, we were aware of it and did not inform the commission so that time could expire.”

When asked if there were any more legal steps involved or if this was the end of Baskin’s case, McLean said “as far as I know, this is it, but this case continues to surprise me.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.