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Permit for Haiku church on ag land denied

Neighbors have been complaining about traffic and noise from Sacred Earth Assembly

The Maui Planning Commission has denied a permit to Sacred Earth Assembly to use a sanctuary farm and two-story agricultural building for church-related activities on agricultural land in Haiku.

The decision came after a year of discussions — prolonged by a detour to the state Land Use Commission — and another three hours of debate Tuesday that included neighbor concerns over traffic and noise, prompting the commission to vote 6-0 to deny the state LUC special permit.

Commissioner Dale Thompson abstained, though his vote counted as a “yes,” Planning Director Michele McLean clarified after the meeting.

Lew Abrams, a psychologist representing the nonprofit interfaith church, sought the permit to use 14.6 acres of the Ahimsa Sanctuary Farm and a 7,693-square-foot, two-story agricultural building for church-related activities at 4504 Hana Highway. Sacred Earth Assembly officials had said that they would have a congregation of no more than 100 members.

Because the church would be on agricultural land, it needed a special use permit.

During several meetings last year, commissioners had questions about what time events could occur, the number of events per year and how to notify neighbors of large events on the property. Neighbors had complained that celebrations on the property already generated noise and traffic. They alleged that church services were already occurring, though Abrams denied the claims.

Last August, the commission approved the permit with 12 conditions that regulated when events could be held and how to mitigate impacts on neighbors.

However, because of the uncertainty over the size of the property — the entire parcel is about 25.5 acres, but the church was located on 14.6 acres — the project was sent to the state Land Use Commission, which handles special permits for any projects over 15 acres.

After a hearing November, the Land Use Commission sent it back to the Maui Planning Commission, asking them to make specific findings on issues such as the actual acreage of the special permit area and traffic impacts, among others.

On Tuesday, commissioners still had concerns over the project, especially given the objections of neighbors, who use a shared water system with the property, and their previous complaints over noise and impacts to the neighborhood.

Commissioner P. Denise La Costa said she wouldn’t support the permit, citing issues with traffic that could impact Hana Highway and issues over water, a concern echoed by commissioner Kawika Freitas.

Members also expressed frustration over Abrams’ responses to the issues and his attempts to seek exemptions from certain conditions approved last year, such as the times and dates when events could be held. He also asked to use amplification for outdoor services to allow the church to comply with social distancing.

As for the private water system, Abrams told commissioners that an engineer concluded that the well has been providing ample water for the subdivision’s needs when running at about 50 percent of its capacity. So, additional demands for church use, even if it grew to 300 people, would be negligible, with no evidence that it might cause detriment to other users, he said.

Abrams added that the church has tried to reach out to neighbors who are parties to the water agreement, but that they’ve been met with resistance and a refusal to communicate to find a reasonable resolution.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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