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Wedding business seeks approvals to use Makena property

Company had operated without permits for 25 years

In a photo provided in county documents, a typical setup for a wedding of 50 people is shown at a Makena property partially leased by longtime Maui business White Orchid Wedding. Photos courtesy of Maui County

A longtime Maui wedding business that operated at a Makena property for 25 years without permits secured one of several required approvals Tuesday to legally hold events and weddings at the private property.

The Maui Planning Commission voted 6-1 in favor of granting Carolee Higashino, owner and operator of White Orchid Wedding, a state Land Use Commission special permit.

Commission Chairwoman P. Denise La Costa along with commissioners Kawika Freitas, Dale Thompson, Mel Hipolito Jr., Kim Thayer and William Greig voted in favor, while Ashley Lindsey voted against. Kellie Pali was absent and excused.

Higashino will still need to seek other approvals including a conditional permit from the Maui County Council and submit applications for a special management area permit and shoreline setback.

“From the beginning and the onset, I didn’t realize there was such a thing and when I was made aware of it, that’s when we chose to shut down (in 2019), cease and desist immediately,” Higashino explained about why she hadn’t secured permits earlier. “I know that’s the biggest question that everybody has.”

“I wasn’t trying to pull wool over anybody’s eyes, everyone knew that I was doing weddings in the industry,” Higashino added.

She said that “without any complaints” about the activity at the home, “I didn’t feel a need to do it, I suppose.”

Other similar venues that they conducted weddings at also didn’t have permits, she said.

Higashino leases about two-thirds of the Makena property and a single-family dwelling on the property from a private owner. White Orchid Wedding, which has been in business for 30 years, also conducts its events at other places on Maui and also coordinates weddings on Oahu, Hawaii island, Lanai and Kauai. The Higashino family also uses the property as a leisure home.

While there were many letters of support for the business, from floral designers to former customers, some were critical of the business’ impacts.

Pat Borge, owner of the nearby Makena Stables, said he didn’t care about the weddings, as he is in the tourism industry himself, but is concerned about the traffic on the narrow road. He said at times the backs of vehicles extend into the roadway and that he had to “walk into the wedding” to have someone move their vehicle so he could get his horse trailer down the road. Hikers and moped riders also traverse the “very, very narrow” road.

Borge said that where guests park their cars, there is no sight distance.

Peter Landon, a neighbor to the property who is also with the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Forestry and Wildlife and manages the nearby ‘Ahihi-Kina’u Natural Area Reserve, is concerned about environmental impacts to the area from a commercial entity.

Landon said he has nothing against the business or the wedding industry but is especially concerned that a neighboring property owned by the state is in the process of being transferred to the Natural Area Reserves System the highest levels of land protection in the state.

He added that in the state’s management plan they are designated to watch over development in nearby areas and that he was the one that reported the property to the county.

He asked the commission to hold off on approvals until a shoreline certification is done, “at a minimum.”

Jeff Bagshaw, the communications and outreach specialist for the DOFAW Maui Nui branch, also added that in a study from 2017 to 2019, there were around 1,200 cars in the area per day.

Bagshaw, who at times gets stuck in traffic on his way to the area, said that he appreciates the business trying to minimize the impacts, but added that “every activity in that area has an impact.”

Robb Cole, principal of Hawaii Land Use Group LLC, representing Higashino, acknowleged there were 10 requests for service to the county about the property, including five complaints over private parties that were mistaken for commercial events, although in some cases permits were needed. Nine of the complaints were from 2019 to May of this year. 

Higashino said there were two weddings that she held in 2021. The weddings were rescheduled multiple times due to COVID and she went forward with them as she would have faced lawsuits from the couples otherwise. 

Another complaint involved a filming of a Hallmark movie in 2021, but Higashino said she had obtained clearance from the mayor. The initial fines were rescinded by the county Department of Planning.

None of the complaints were neighbor nuisance complaints but rather over commercial events and/or zoning or special management area issues.

Others who have known Higashino for years praised her as a person and said that the business takes care of the property.

Dana Pastula, owner of Cafe O’Lei Restaurants, said Higashino helped her succeed, as she “was a little mama shop in Wailuku and Makawao” and Higashino gave her a chance to cater some events.

“She not only inspired me but encouraged me to achieve my goals,” said Pastula, who now runs popular restaurants and a catering business.

She added that Higashino is generous to the community and many businesses have thrived because of Higashino.

Responding to parking concerns, Cole said there are eight spaces that the business utilizes on-site for guests and staff and that events that exceed 25 guests are required to use shuttles.

He added that Higashino will also replace the existing cesspool with a modern aerobic septic system prior to hosting any events.

The commission added its own condition in addition to department-recommended conditions, including no overnight accommodations in the main dwelling for event guests or participants, allowing a maximum of 49 people (guests and staff) for events and limiting the events at the property to 120 per year.

“I think we are all for having businesses hire here (and) keep the money on island,” said Thompson, who made the motion to approve the permit.

Freitas, who seconded the motion, said that “this kind of venues is very much a needed thing on our island,” alluding to the handful of small beachfront wedding operations besides resorts.

He said this goes along with the Hawaii Tourism Authority’s Destination Management Action Plans, in which the goal is “to create a better experience for our visitors and this is a destination to get married at.”

Freitas added that he hopes venues like these will take weddings off of the beaches.

“I sincerely feel that Ms. Higashino, her husband and son that spoke earlier, they really take care,” Freitas said. “Sounds like they malama the aina around there.”

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

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