The proposed rail station had to go. The exotic dancers are allowed to stay.

Aviation safety rules prohibit the construction of new buildings near the runway at Honolulu International Airport, but existing structures are grandfathered in. So even though the city was forced to realign its rail line, businesses in the area are still standing even after the city and state were made aware of the expanded runway protection zone (RPZ) that disallows new development.

Among those businesses are a bar with exotic dancers, a Chinese restaurant and a small liquor store, all at the Ewa-mauka corner of Lagoon Drive and Aolele Street. A rail station was once planned for the Ewa-makai corner, in what is today an airport employee parking lot.

A beat-down building on the mauka side of Aolele Street falls in the Runway Protection Zone near Honolulu International Airport.

Recently we told you about all the circumstances that forced the rail alignment change, one block mauka to Ualena Street.

Read the stories in that series:

In short: Federal aviation rules establish a buffer zone that prohibits places of “public assembly” too close to the runway, for safety purposes. Specific examples include churches, schools, hospitals, office buildings and shopping centers. That buffer zone was expanded to handle larger, faster planes landing at and taking off from Honolulu International Airport, so the alignment, and proposed station at the corner of Lagoon Drive, needed to be moved.

“The (Runway Protection Zone) has become kind of a hard thing, particularly with the problems we’ve had with runway runoffs,” former Federal Aviation Administration chief counsel Sandy Murdock told Civil Beat. “If there’s a train in the RPZ, and you’ve got a fully loaded 747 that’s full of fuel, that’s a problem.”

The length of the RPZ increased from 1,000 feet to 1,700 feet in the Hawaii Department of Transportation’s (HDOT) newest Airport Layout Plan. FAA spokesman Ian Gregor told Civil Beat the RPZs for Runways 22L and 22R changed dimensions for certain runway types in 1994.

HDOT spokesman Dan Meisenzahl said the state used the smaller dimensions when it updated its layout plan in 2000 because Honolulu International was not yet using larger planes that would require a change. But in the 2010 update, the dimensions were updated to reflect the rules.

A map provided to Civil Beat shows that the RPZ clearly crosses the employee parking lot as well as Aolele Street and the properties on the mauka side of that street.

Source: Sheet 2, Airport Layout Plan, Nov. 30, 2010

That would seem to include the strip club, restaurant and liquor store.

Gregor said the FAA is aware of the conditions at Honolulu International, and hasn’t conducted any specific investigation. The consequences for failing to comply with federal rules would be significant. He said failing to comply with RPZ rules on land the airport “owns or controls” could affect federal funding for runway improvements.

Murdock, the former FAA chief counsel, said the penalties could be even more draconian — the airport could lose federal approvals that would mean large aircraft wouldn’t be allowed to land.

“If this in Honolulu International, this would have a big, big consequence,” he said. “But the FAA, I think, would go out of its way to cure that.”

But the rules that apply to the airport don’t necessarily apply to all buildings nearby.

“There is no requirement for the airport to clear nonconforming buildings in the extended RPZ area,” Gregor told Civil Beat in an email. The FAA’s land use rules have “recommendation status” for any portion of the RPZ not controlled by the airport.

The FAA asks airports to acquire land within the entire RPZ “whenever practicable,” and the FAA helps airports remove incompatible buildings when money is available, he said.

“An airport may be unable to clear out incompatible uses on land it does not own or control,” Gregor wrote. “There are areas within the standard size RPZs for certain runways at Honolulu International Airport that the airport operator does not own or control. These areas contain land uses that appear to be inconsistent with FAA’s RPZ land use standards.”

Indeed, while the airport does “own” the land under the strip club, restaurant and liquor store, it does not currently “control” the property.

A property tax search shows that the State of Hawaii Department of Transportation Airports Division is among three listed owners for the parcel at 494 Lagoon Drive. The others are Norman M. Kronick, Trustee and Aloha Petroleum, which operates a gas station on the portion of the lot fronting Ualena Street.

Meisenzahl said HDOT owns all of the land within all of the airport’s Runway Protection Zones.

When Civil Beat visited the bar, restaurant and liquor store early one afternoon last week, the people working were unable to provide answers about the landlord or property owner. A language barrier was part of the problem, and three women at the strip club told this reporter to come back at night to speak with the bar’s owner. They said the landlord lives in Texas, and that the lease expires within the next year or two but that it’s being renegotiated.

Asked if HDOT reached out to any businesses when it revised its Airport Layout Plan, Meisenzahl said no. New developments near the airport need to review the plan and RPZ rules, he said.

“As for those three businesses you mentioned, we are in the planning stages and looking at alternatives for what is in the 22L RPZ. Because we are still in the planning stages, we have not contacted those business yet,” he wrote in an email.

Meisenzahl said HDOT’s priority is to maximize the value of all its land holdings and reinvest that money back into improving the airport.

“The FAA is aware of those structures and aware that we are in the planning stages and is being kept informed at every critical step of the way. The FAA keeps a close watch on all airport properties and revenue sources to ensure the money is being used for the airports,” Meisenzahl wrote. “With the multiple issues and projects facing HDOT, Honolulu International Airport and the FAA, this is issue is not on the top of the priority list.”

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