UPDATED 5/25/11 3:50 p.m.

LAIE — Today’s decisions will shape the future of Oahu’s bucolic northeast corner.

A confrontation between proponents of job- and home-creating expansion and those who want to instead perpetuate the area’s rural character is a microcosm of an argument that’s happened all across the Hawaiian Islands.

Koolau Loa is just the latest in a long line of communities wrestling with how far to go in shifting from subsistence farming and fishing to tourism and institutions connecting Hawaii with the outside world.

The 10-mile-long swath of windward Oahu spans the small coastal towns of Kaaawa, Punaluu, Hauula, Laie, Kahuku and — someday, perhaps — Malaekahana.

The Koolau Loa region encompasses a number of towns in Oahu’s northeast corner. Full size

Those on both sides of the debate agree that now is a critical moment. The Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan — one of the primary government planning documents — is in the process of a five-year review. The final product will serve as a critical first step in any long-term, large-scale development.

BYU-Hawaii and Polynesian Cultural Center Want to Grow

Brigham Young University-Hawaii and the associated Polynesian Cultural Center, the region’s two economic engines for the past half-century, are pushing for major changes.

“Basically we need to become sustainable, and one of the ways you do it … is that if you’re small you need to have modest growth so you can have economies of scale,” BYU-Hawaii President Steven Wheelwright told Civil Beat.

In order to pay for new housing to replace 50-year-old dormitories, Wheelwright said, the school needs to expand to 5,000 students from less than 3,000. The enrollment would need to rise 5 to 7 percent per year for about a decade to hit the target.

At the same time, the Polynesian Cultural Center wants to bring in more than 1 million visitors each year, an increase of around 40 percent from current levels.

Chief Operating Officer Alfred Grace said PCC has about 1,100 employees, many BYU students that work part-time. Because patrons expect person-to-person interaction, PCC will maintain a low visitor-to-employee ratio even as it welcomes more guests. And those new employees will need a place to live.

“When I weigh up the priorities, I think that we tend to be a people who enjoy having our families around us,” Grace said. “(The expansion proposal) provides us with an opportunity to use a relative small percentage of the land resource to fulfill our needs for the foreseeable future.”

The desires of BYU and the Polynesian Cultural Center have been shaped into a common vision for the future of the region titled Envision Laie. And because they have serious clout in Koolau Loa, the proposed Sustainable Communities Plan borrows liberally from their vision.

Most prominent among the proposals included in the latest incarnation of the 155-page planning document [pdf] is a new residential community in the as-yet undeveloped Malaekahana Valley just north of Laie.

Planning Director: Proposal is Consistent with General Plan

The plan’s chapter on “the vision for Koolau Loa’s future” says the area’s residential population is projected to increase from approximately 14,500 in 2000 to about 16,200 in 2035. If that holds, the region would continue to be home to about 1.4 percent of Honolulu residents, consistent with the Oahu General Plan’s population distribution policy [pdf].

The Oahu General Plan calls for development in some areas and preservation in others. Full size

But the plan’s section on land use policies says Malaekahana is expected to provide about 875 new units for “workforce housing” — a significant addition when you consider that Koolau Loa contained about 4,500 housing units in 2000. If the household size holds steady at 3.75, the Malaekahana population alone would grow by nearly 3,300 — nearly double the 1,700-resident increase envisioned for the entire region.

Recently-reconfirmed Honolulu Planning and Permitting Director David Tanoue said the proposal is consistent with the General Plan. He pointed to Objective E, Policy 5 of the section on Physical Development and Urban Design [pdf], which instructs the city to “Require new developments in stable, established communities and rural areas to be compatible with the existing communities and areas.”

Tanoue was also quick to point out that the new plan isn’t a giveaway to developers.

“Our recommendations for the new community in Malaekahana (which was less than what the applicant requested) include an affordable housing requirement, design requirements to assure compatibility with the surrounding rural character, and good connections to Laie and its employment centers,” Tanoue said in an e-mail to Civil Beat.

Opponents Frustrated with Loss of Control

But some area residents are not happy with the proposal or satisfied with those concessions. Sitting at a picnic table behind a Laie country store, they shared tales of how they’d been wronged by the pro-development faction, which they said includes BYU, PCC and Hawaii Reserves, Inc.

“I honestly don’t think they have the welfare of the people in their hearts,” said Choon James, a Laie Realtor and a member of the Planning Advisory Committee for the Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan update.

She said Envision Laie is “all about the money” and, if implemented, would exploit the land to bring in more visitors. She said the government is “just giving carte blanche to developers without investigating,” and suggested that BYU instead expand to an area behind its campus that’s already zoned for development.

Kent Fonoimoana, co-chair of the Defend Oahu Coalition and a member of the Kahuku Community Board, said the proposal is actually counter to “real sustainability.” He said life-long residents are being ignored in favor of recent implants, and the concerns neighboring communities like Kahuku and Hauula are being ignored in favor of the denizens of just one town — Laie.

“Students and missionaries have no dog in the fight,” but they’ve been attending meetings and signing petitions just the same, Fonoimoana said. “This is Koolau Loa, not Laie Lau Loa.”

Exacerbating the frustration is a perception that the university has shifted its focus in recent years. James warned that Envision Laie would turn the area into a “Little Utah.” Fonoimoana, perhaps channeling the Red Hot Chili Peppers or David Duchovny, said the area is on a course of “Californication.” Fellow anti-development crusader KC Connors was the most direct, using the word “Haole-ization.”

To some degree, BYU-Hawaii’s own enrollment numbers lend support to those terms.

In the fall of 2006, Caucasians represented 29.6 percent of 2,414 degree-seeking students, according to a fact sheet [pdf] published on the school’s website. The U.S. Mainland was identified as the “home area” for 32 percent of those students.

Four years later, the demographics have changed. Caucasians now represent 41.8 percent of 2,780 degree-seeking students, according to the Fall 2010 fact sheet [pdf]. The U.S. Mainland is now home to 48 percent of students — 311 from California, up from 165 four years ago, and 271 from Utah, up from 170. Hawaiians, Asians and Pacific Islanders all lost ground.

But Wheelwright, the school’s president, said that 50 percent of his students have a language other than English as their native tongue, and that Pacific Studies remains a popular major.

“The mission of the school is the same mission it had when it was opened,” he said. “It’s never changed.”

Grace, the PCC executive, said there has been “a bit of a lull, but we expect the percentage of Pacific Rim students, Polynesian students to start to increase again in the next few years.”

Church Defends Process

UPDATE Complaints about process and fair representation are a big part of the objections. Opponents say they’ve been systematically drowned out at meetings by employees of Envision Laie and other pro-development organizations. It’s been particularly hard for James and Fonoimoana as Mormons. They say that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has great influence in shaping the debate and that many in the community feel afraid to voice dissenting opinions.1

Wheelwright, who as president of BYU-Hawaii reports to the church’s education board, said the school encourages its students and faculty to “explore a variety of perspectives.”

“We have as much a diversity of opinion in this little town as you’ll find in any little town anywhere, and I think that’s healthy,” he said. “We have people who take different positions on a whole lot of different things. Debate has always been present on any university campus, and ours is no different.”

Dawn Wasson is a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner opposed to the expansion. She said a mauka access road connecting the new town in Malaekahana to the existing town in Laie would infringe on Kuleana lands — parcels given to Hawaiians when private ownership first took hold in the Great Mahele of 1848.

In the century and a half since, the Mormon church has acquired considerable political clout from its many members. That power has allowed it to “eat the lands of the ancestors,” Wasson said.

The church was established in the years following the Great Mahele, and affiliated entities claim to have held title in the area since 1865. The Laie Mormon Temple was constructed around 1920. BYU-Hawaii was founded in the mid-1950s, and the Polynesian Cultural Center opened its doors in 1963. Hawaiians have seen their control of the islands slowly slip away, with the Mormon church picking up the slack in the greater Laie area.

“They know the members of their church will never rise up against them,” Wasson said. “Ever.”

Tanoue, the Honolulu planning chief, acknowledges that the church and related entities had a say in the process.

“As a major rural employment center, the needs of the Brigham Young University-Polynesian Cultural Center complex to be more sustainable was also given serious consideration,” he said in his e-mail.

On Nov. 24, Civil Beat filed a Uniform Information Practices Act request [pdf] for electronic copies of “All written communications (including, but not limited to, e-mails) between Honolulu Department of Planning and Permitting Director David Tanoue and any employees or representatives of Hawaii Reserves, Inc.; Envision Laie; Brigham Young University-Hawaii; Polynesian Cultural Center; and/or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.”

In his response to Civil Beat’s questions, Tanoue said there has been opposition to the proposal and that “consensus … could not be obtained.” But he describes the Sustainable Communities Plan update as “just one step in a rather long entitlement process” for Envision Laie, so it was time to move forward after numerous delays.

Many Steps to Go

“It will need an environmental impact statement. It will need a boundary amendment from the State Land Use Commission before it seeks county rezoning. Many more downstream permits are required if rezoning is successful, including subdivision, utility, infrastructure and design reviews, and building permits,” Tanoue wrote.

Wheelwright knows that the Sustainable Communities Plan is just the first step, but said it’s important that the community establish its goals for the future.

“The idea of making it sustainable through some modest incremental growth is what the vast majority wants,” he said. “We want more open space, we want lower buildings, we want things that fit into the existing area.”

Asked why BYU doesn’t just build taller dorms on the existing campus footprint to avoid expanding into previously undeveloped areas, the president described his school as “very much a plantation-style kind of place.”

“We don’t want a campus that looks like UH Manoa,” he said, laughing. “We don’t think that’s the right thing for our area, and we don’t think that anyone else would think that’s the right thing for our area either.”

But, he said, some growth is needed.

“People are afraid of things they don’t know. There’s uncertainty and change,” Wheelwright said. “But I also think there’s a lot of support.”

The next public meeting to discuss Envision Laie is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Kahuku High and Intermediate School cafeteria.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author