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Big changes to Wailuku town development rules proposed

Committee: Tighter laws may discourage revitalization but help evade litigation

Traffic passes through Wailuku town in January. A proposed Maui County Council bill would tighten many laws for nearly 70 acres of downtown Wailuku in response to litigation against the county. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Saying they’re up against a wall, Maui County Council members on Wednesday recommended approval for sweeping changes to nearly 70 acres of downtown Wailuku in a step to evade long-term litigation.

“We’re sort of caught between a rock and a hard place on this one with the situation regarding the lawsuit versus the proposed changes that could deincentivize further improvements in the town,” Council Member Mike Molina said before the vote. “It’s something we unfortunately have to choose to do to avoid any potential longstanding litigation that could cost the taxpayers a bunch of money.”

Meanwhile, public testimony echoed the need to slow down since the community doesn’t know the full impact of the proposed changes. Wailuku resident Mahina Martin testified again during a recent meeting on the item, asking that no action be taken.

“I understand the lawsuit … it is one I personally support,” she said Sept. 16. “Attorneys are great but sometimes attorneys and communities don’t converge well together in timing.”

The council’s Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee voted 6-1 Wednesday evening to green light an amended bill that would tighten many laws for the Wailuku Redevelopment Area, roughly 68 acres at the heart of the town. The nearly 100-page bill now heads to full council for first reading.

Before her dissenting vote, Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura said that the bill moves too far from decades of work to craft rules that would spur smart area development.

“I think we were trying to eliminate a hotel being built,” Sugimura said. “What we ended up doing was taking the town and — I’m not even sure what the impact is — but I think it’s huge.”

Council Chairwoman Alice Lee said she will vote for the bill even though she doesn’t “agree with a lot of it.”

“I don’t believe we’re providing the incentives that are needed to revitalize Wailuku,” she said prior to the vote Wednesday.

The bill would also pull power from Maui Redevelopment Agency, a county panel that oversees decisions for height variances, zoning and other rules, instead placing it in the hands of the county Board of Variances and Appeals.

Community opposition to a proposed six-story Wailuku hotel led community groups to file a lawsuit in 2020 challenging the legal authority of the Maui Redevelopment Agency. A moratorium was then placed on the agency’s decision-making and the hotel has stalled.

Before the hotel, public tension was already mounting over the high price tag and tall height for the county’s proposed Wailuku Civic Complex, a multistory parking lot and civic center with a cost of more than $80 million.

Only the $44 million parking structure and infrastructure upgrades have gone through. The county broke ground on the four-level, 428-stall parking structure earlier this year.

Wailuku Good Government Coalition and Maui Tomorrow Foundation, which filed the suit, said planning and land use issues should go before the planning commissions and the County Council, but 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.

Planning and Sustainable Land Use Committee Chairwoman Tamara Paltin, who proposed many of the amendments approved Wednesday, said during meetings Sept. 16 and Wednesday that attorneys have advised the council to move quickly on the measure because of the lawsuit.

“We invite folks if this doesn’t work out for them to go through the process to start amending this bill as well,” she said Wednesday. “But because of the lawsuit we just took it in the other direction as was explained to us by (Deputy Corporation Counsel Mike Hopper). Instead of changing it later to make it more strict, we can change it later to make it more loose — if that’s what the community or the market desires, get started on it right away.

“Nobody likes to be sued,” she added. “We can be sued at any time, anywhere, any place, for any reason, and that’s just the hand that we’re dealt.”

For a copy of the proposed amendments prior to Wednesday’s meeting, visit mauicounty.us/agendas/ and click on the fourth version of “PSLU-24 CC 21-156” under Wednesday’s meeting details.

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

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