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Proposal pulls power from Maui Redevelopment Agency

Wailuku hotel proposal opposition sparked scrutiny of authority

Traffic navigates Wailuku’s Main Street on Tuesday afternoon. The Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday recommended a proposed bill that would pull power from the Maui Redevelopment Agency, which has the authority to alter zoning and variance rules for downtown Wailuku. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

The Maui Planning Commission on Tuesday gave its backing to a proposed bill that pulls power from a county agency with authority to alter zoning and variance rules for downtown Wailuku.

The commission voted 8-0, with one absent, to recommend approval for the bill, which would strip Maui Redevelopment Agency’s authority of variance review and decision. The power would instead go to the county Board of Variances and Appeals. The bill must now go before the Maui County Council.

In the past, the Maui Redevelopment Agency, a five-member volunteer panel appointed by the mayor and approved by the council, has had the power to alter zoning and grant variances in the Wailuku Redevelopment Area that covers about 68 acres in the heart of Wailuku.

However, the panel came under fire in late 2019 when it mulled raising Wailuku building heights from four to six stories, which would accommodate a six-story, 156-room Hotel Wailuku pitched by Jonathan Starr for his land near the corner of Main and Market streets.

Opponents to Starr’s hotel project packed a Maui Redevelopment Agency meeting in late 2019 when the legality of the panel’s power was first questioned by Council Vice-Chairwoman Keani Rawlins-Fernandez.

A county agency that has authority to alter zoning and variance rules in Wailuku has come under scrutiny following a proposal for a six-story hotel in the heart of the town.

Community groups Wailuku Good Government Coalition and Maui Tomorrow Foundation filed a lawsuit in 2020 challenging the legal authority of the Maui Redevelopment Agency to zone land in Wailuku and issue variances. As a result, a moratorium was placed last spring on the panel’s decision-making.

The plaintiffs said planning and land use issues go before the planning commissions and the County Council. That is not the case with Maui Redevelopment Agency applications, with plans only subject to limited review by the council. They said the powers should lie with the council and the Board of Variances and Appeals.

Attorney Lance Collins, who represents the plaintiffs, said Tuesday afternoon that motions are scheduled for March.

“However, our agreement is that the administration could propose legislation to fix or cure the present illegal state of the MRA,” he said. “As the administration has no control over the council’s deliberations on its proposed fix, we may have to ask the court to continue the hearing on the motions.”

County planner Scott Forsythe said during the meeting Tuesday that the Maui Redevelopment Agency has existed in various forms since 1964. State law allowed county boards to create a local redevelopment agency. In 1989, the panel was established in the Maui County Code with state urban renewal powers and charged with implementing a plan for Wailuku’s redevelopment.

The agency reviews applications for proposed developments, renovations and use activities. It also develops plans, studies, capital projects and community programs.

“The Hawaii Urban Renewal law gives some authority and the Wailuku code was adopted through proper rule-making procedures, so it was assumed these actions were legitimate,” Forsythe said. “Only after recent scrutiny was it made clear that this was not the case.”

Forsythe said this is why Wailuku code needs to be incorporated into Title 19, which is a county zoning document.

“Also under Title 19, variances, which are deviations from the zoning requirements, only can be heard by the Board of Variances and Appeals,” he said. “The MRA has been the body that has heard and acted upon the variances, but this authority is exclusively vested in the BVA.”

Starr, however, said the major change hasn’t been thoroughly vetted by area landowners, and many of them don’t know this is happening.

“This is a very major change. It’s been made to look like it’s a very minor change but it’s not,” Starr said during testimony Tuesday. “It completely changes . . . in terms of process and in terms of what property owners have to get through in order to make any changes or to get value out of their property.”

The proposed bill for an ordinance to amend existing Wailuku code into Title 19’s zoning code now heads to the County Council.

* Kehaulani Cerizo can be reached at kcerizo@mauinews.com.

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