There have been close to 150 community meetings during the past year about the proposed expansion of the Turtle Bay Resort.

This is in sharp contrast to the property’s previous owner – Oaktree Capital – which held none, the property’s new developers say.

Turtle Bay Resorts LLC, which took over the property last summer, has focused on a process of engagement and greater transparency with the North Shore community, where a bohemian surf culture and slow development sentiment has fought to prevail.

“I will grant the developers their transparency. They’ve been more open than other developers,” said Tim Vandeveer, of Defend Oahu Coalition, which has been a vocal critic of expansion plans.

The original 443-room hotel at Turtle Bay sits on 858 acres and hasn’t expanded since 1972. For the past five years, a major development plan hatched in 1985 that sought to add five hotels and 3,500 units has been tied up in court.

Now, with the submission of a new, scaled-back plan, investors are reigniting a development process that could entail another lengthy battle.

The current plan entails 1,375 new hotel rooms and residences and five parks, along a largely unspoiled coastline. The project has raised concerns about impacts on Native Hawaiian burial remains, endangered monk seals and major traffic congestion along a single two-lane highway known for weekend gridlock.

If all goes well, the expansion of the resort could break ground within two to three years, according to Drew Stotesbury, asset manager for the property.

The property is unique in that it already has land use and zoning permits for development – a major hurdle that has plagued other major resorts and planned communities.

But it’s not a sure thing, as acknowledged by Stotesbury. The development could still face legal battles and procedural challenges at the city level.

Timeline

Turtle Bay Resorts filed a notice of a draft environmental assessment this week. The public has 30 days to comment on the plan. The final EIS is expected to be completed by the end of this year or early 2012. The community will then have 45 days to comment on it.

The final document then goes to the city Department of Planning and Permitting for approval. There will be a 60–day period in which any party to the deliberations can challenge the ruling in court.

If the plan is approved, a subdivision plan, which entails assessing water, sewage and proper access, will be submitted to the city for review.

Killing the Goose for the Golden Egg?

Groups including the Sierra Club, Keep the North Shore Country and the Defend Oahu Coalition have expressed vocal opposition to the project in the past.

The Sierra Club and Keep the North Shore Country sued the city in 2006, claiming that a new EIS was required because a previous assessment done in 1985 was outdated. The groups prevailed in a Supreme Court ruling in April 2010.

Since then, community leaders say that the new owners have made a concerted effort to reach out to the community, though it’s far from clear whether the efforts will ultimately appease major concerns with the project.

The Sierra Club has not taken a hardline position on the development and is always open to compromise, said Robert Harris, director of the group’s Hawaii chapter.

But concerns with traffic, the environment and a general sentiment against major new development remain.

“Hawaii is very unique because we have very finite resources and once you pave it all over, you get rid of the reason people come here,” said Vandeveer. “You kill the goose laying the golden egg, so to speak.”

Political Obstacles

The proposed expansion of Turtle Bay has been a hot button political issue in the past and has faced opposition at the highest levels of state government.

Former Gov. Linda Lingle characterized the resort as runaway, unsustainable development back in 2008, and went so far as to propose purchasing, or condemning, the land.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has met with various groups about the development, but hasn’t taken a position on the issue, according to Donalyn Dela Cruz, his press secretary.

“He is committed to hearing all sides but has not taken on any position at this time,” she said by email.

At the city level it could become fodder for political campaigns next year, with mayoral and city council elections coming up in the summer – the same time that the final EIS is expected to go to the city planning department for approval.

Though, to what degree the elections may or may not impact the development remains to be seen.

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