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Bill could change zoning authority for Wailuku town

Controversy centers on plans for six-story hotel; some say bill needs more vetting

The Wailuku Redevelopment Area encompasses about 68 acres in Wailuku and Happy Valley. Authority for zoning, variances and other rules would move from the Wailuku Redevelopment Agency to the county’s Board of Variances and Appeals if a proposal makes its way through the Maui County Council. However, council members at a Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee meeting last week said the 67-page proposal from the Planning Department needs more vetting. COUNTY OF MAUI image

Pushback over plans for a six-story hotel in downtown Wailuku is sparking council consideration over who will have authority to decide height variances, zoning and other rules for about 68 acres at the city’s core.

The Maui County Council’s Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee discussed a bill last week that would pull power from a county agency with authority to alter the Wailuku Redevelopment Area’s zoning and variance laws and instead place it in the hands of the county Board of Variances and Appeals.

However, testifier and Wailuku resident Mahina Martin said she wants the bill to have tighter rules when it comes to certain approvals — and encouraged members to take more time before moving on it.

“As you may recall, our public disagreement with building a large hotel in the old Wailuku area kind of spurred this type of action,” she said. “I don’t want to go down that road again, quite frankly. That was really frustrating. I am not interested in the opportunity to create large hotels — I believe our community does not, including Wailuku folks.”

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said that the committee needs to consider all its options, beyond the current measure.

She added that there are many layers involved in recent debates over the height of the proposed hotel, the county’s proposed civic complex and other projects. Lee, who is from Wailuku and whose residency seat covers the town, said many are divided over the direction of the town because it has changed “unbelievably” over the years.

“You see a lot of people you never saw before and a lot of them are transients,” she said. “There’s a bifurcation of the town — the true, traditional Wailuku town and the new town. That’s why there are all these conflicts.”

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

However, the panel came under fire in late 2019 when it mulled raising Wailuku building heights from four to six stories, which would accommodate the 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 questioned.

Community groups Wailuku Good Government Coalition and Maui Tomorrow Foundation then filed a lawsuit in 2020 challenging the legal authority of the agency to zone land in Wailuku and issue variances. As a result, a moratorium was placed on the agency’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.

Attorney Lance Collins, who represents the plaintiffs, has said in the past that the administration could propose legislation to fix or cure the present illegal state of the agency.

The Maui Planning Commission in January voted 8-0, with one absent, to recommend approval for a bill to move power from the agency and place it with the Board of Variances and Appeals.

Committee Chairwoman Tamara Paltin said during the meeting last week that a summary judgment on the lawsuit may be coming in October. She deferred the item, saying she wanted members to have a month or two to digest the 67-page proposed bill and return with proposed amendments.

Paltin said she would look at removing “boutique hotel” from a line that says the proposed chapter’s purpose and intent is to “encourage a mixture of retail shops, restaurants, offices, personal and professional services, boutique hotel, multifamily, residential and public use opportunities.”

Also at the committee meeting, members voted 8-0, with Council Member Tasha Kama absent and excused, to recommend approval on a pair of bills that would reduce by attrition the number of short-term rental home permits on Lanai to 15 and allow the cap on bed-and-breakfasts to coincide with the short-term rental home cap. Lanai currently has 17 permitted short-term rental homes and only one permitted bed-and-breakfast. The measures now head to full council.

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

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