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Olowalu is between here and there: Future of West Maui land is currently up for debate

Types of developments allowed to hinge on local community plan

Traffic on Honoapiilani Highway passes under Olowalu’s tree canopy Wednesday afternoon. The future of development in the area is up for debate as community members work to update the West Maui Community Plan. On Tuesday, the West Maui Community Plan Advisory Committee elected to keep the area agricultural, which will still allows for housing. However, some landowners say the Maui Island Plan allows for Olowalu to become a master-planned community. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

The former plantation town of Olowalu is, depending on who’s looking at it, the perfect place to build a master-planned community or the last place where residents want to see sprawl.

Whether it becomes the former or the latter will depend largely on the type of development that West Maui’s major planning document will allow.

“Our community has spoken loud and clear that they don’t want that level of density in that area,” said Kai Nishiki, chairwoman of the West Maui Community Plan Advisory Committee. “It’s not smart growth. It’s promoting sprawl and development in areas where infrastructure is not available.”

On Tuesday, the CPAC voted 7-5 to designate the Olowalu Town Planned Growth Area as agricultural — which still will allow for housing but not the way some landowners had thought the Maui Island Plan had promised.

“If the community plans are going to lead the island plan, then there’s no reason to have an island plan,” said Lawrence Carnicelli, managing director of Olowalu Elua Associates, which owns large tracts of land in the area. “And the Maui Island Plan said that this area is within the urban growth boundary.”

Where there once were shade trees and sandy beach along Olowalu’s coast, waves now lap up to the roadway and sometimes over. Olowalu’s proximity to nearshore reefs and concerns over vulnerable infrastructure are some of the reasons residents oppose development in the area.

The two plans work hand in hand to guide the future growth, use of lands and economic, social and environmental decisions in Maui County. The Maui Island Plan is a 20-year document that’s good through 2030; community plans are 10-year documents. However, most are behind schedule, and the 1996 West Maui Community Plan is the first on Maui to undergo a long-awaited update.

Since July, the Community Plan Advisory Committee has been working through the nitty-gritty task of reviewing the plan. The 13-member body is currently discussing designations for different areas of West Maui.

Olowalu town has long been hotly debated as a suitable place for housing projects, largely because of its distance from schools, jobs and emergency services; vulnerability to fires; and proximity to nearshore reefs. Around the same time that the Maui Island Plan was being created, developers brought forward a 1,500-home project that proposed an entire community of schools, parks and stores. Widespread community opposition and the state Land Use Commission’s rejection of the project’s environmental impact statement eventually led developers to withdraw the project in 2016.

But, because the Maui Island Plan still reflects that project, Carnicelli and others believe that it should ultimately become a master-planned community. Olowalu Town, as described in the Maui Island Plan, is a 613-acre area projected to see up to 1,500 units, a balance of single- and multi-family.

“All of the things that everybody is concerned with, Olowalu Town addresses,” Carnicelli said Thursday. “Leaving it in ag, those concerns are not addressed.”

Carnicelli argued that a planned community that retains runoff is better for reefs than fallow ag lands subject to rains. Traffic would improve if the highway could be moved mauka and residents could walk or bike to schools, jobs or services. And, replacing dry brush with actual homes would help reduce the risk of fires, he said, pointing to past comments of fire officials.

“My concern about keeping it in ag is that local people like you and I will not be able to afford to live there,” he said.

But Nishiki said the community’s opposition to the 1,500-home project made it clear that they don’t want development in that area for the exact opposite reasons.

“If we’re going to talk about a town, we need to talk about infrastructure first,” Nishiki said. “Wait until the bypass is built. . . . Our highway right there is falling in the ocean. So let’s think infrastructure first. Let’s deal with putting in a fire station, looking at the road.”

Nishiki added that the Maui Island Plan “gives a larger picture of growth for the future,” while the community plan can be more detailed and specific. A big reason that CPAC members wanted to keep Olowalu and areas like Launiupoko and Makila in ag is because fast-track housing projects would be required to build 51 percent affordable.

“Urban growth boundaries are not meant to just be filled with development that these developers keep trying to push on the public,” Nishiki said. “Within the urban growth boundary there’s ag, there’s parks, and so we don’t need to feel the pressure to fill the entire urban growth boundary with development.”

Nishiki said that the community also wants to see developments closer to jobs and services, so the CPAC has prioritized areas like Wainee and around the Kapalua Airport.

Planner Supervisor Jennifer Maydan said during Tuesday’s meeting that the county did open house workshops with the community before the CPAC was formed and that “the feedback that we got was overwhelmingly that the community did not want to see a lot of development south of Lahaina town.”

However, she said that the comments were mostly “qualitative” and didn’t have specific stats on how many people favored or opposed it. CPAC Vice-Chairwoman Jeri Dean said while there’s plenty of opposition, there’s also support, and she herself would like to see their children be able to build outside the congestion of Lahaina town.

Carnicelli took issue with the Planning Department’s outreach and said people looking at maps “with big circles in Olowalu and Makila and Kaanapali” may have gotten worried about large developments.

“The No. 1 thing we want is housing, and the No. 1 thing we are against is growth and development,” he said.

Planning Director Michele McLean said Thursday that the only lands that the CPAC is looking at for designations are within the growth boundaries, but they’re not required to fill those areas.

“There’s way more land in the growth boundaries than is needed for the population projects for the planning period,” she said. “So by leaving some of it as ag or what it’s currently designated, that’s fine for them to do.”

McLean added that the Maui Island Plan includes the potential for 1,500 units in Olowalu because that’s what developers were proposing at the time. Community members and county officials who put together the plan were accounting for potential development, but it’s not required solely because it’s in the plan, she said.

“This isn’t a mandate that this development happens,” McLean said. “It says if growth is going to happen in this area, this is what the Maui Island Plan calls for, and the growth needs to be consistent with that.”

Carnicelli is also the chairman of the Maui Planning Commission, which will review the West Maui plan after the CPAC. When asked about Nishiki’s concerns over his conflict of interest in advocating for designations in Olowalu, he said that he had gotten an opinion from the Board of Ethics that directs him to recuse himself on any votes related to Olowalu Elua.

“When Olowalu Elua things come up, I will hand over the gavel, and I will sit out. That’s my plan,” he said. “I’m not even going to participate. I’m not even going to run the meeting when Olowalu Elua things come up.”

After the CPAC and Planning Commission finish their review, the plan will head to the Maui County Council for final approval.

The next CPAC meeting will take place 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Waiola Church’s Keopuolani Hall. For updates on the plan, visit wearemaui.konveio.com.

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

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