Thirty years ago, officials from Tokyo-based Haseko, a multi-billion-dollar real estate development firm, pitched state officials an ambitious plan for Ewa Beach.
They would build a maritime community of 7,200 homes, resort lodgings, parks, a ferry service to Honolulu and a host of other amenities.
The plan has evolved through the years, but its centerpiece has always been a marina, which the company said could be a world-class boating destination, hosting international yachting competitions on the scale of the America’s Cup.
Stores, restaurants and boat repair shops would surround the 110-acre waterway, equipped with 1,400 boat slips. The commercial complex alone was expected to create 1,500 jobs.
But last month, after three decades of planning, Haseko announced that there would be no marina. Instead there would be a lagoon, with no outlet to the ocean. Rather than opulent boat races, it would be better suited for swimming and leisurely stand-up paddle boarding.
The sudden switch has angered some residents, sparked talk of lawsuits and raised questions about whether state and county officials can hold developers to their promises.
“I’m willing and interested in paying for a marina, but I’m not interested in the upkeep and maintenance of a standing body of water that will turn into a cesspool,” said Matt LoPresti, who bought a townhome from Haseko last year.
The company’s vice president, Sharene Saito Tam, said in a statement to Civil Beat that the change of plans came after several months of conversations with the hotel industry, waterfront designers and others.
It “became clear that making a course change would better serve both the community and the company,” wrote Saito. “We believe transforming the marina into a lagoon will allow more people to enjoy the resource, and help us realize our vision in a more timely and economically efficient way.”
Haseko’s marina was never embraced by everyone, especially local environmental groups. Residents have raised concerns about the impact it would have on the natural environment, native Hawaiian burial grounds and cultural sites, and a popular surf spot. Opposition to the marina in the 1990s included the Sierra Club, Ewa Beach Ohana, Ka Lahui Hawaii, Life of the Land, Save our Surf and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
But state and county officials granted numerous approvals for the project, and hundreds of people bought homes in Haseko’s communities of Hoakalei and Ocean Pointe, on the belief that there would be a boat harbor.
“[Haseko] could basically say anything they want in hearings and in public meetings – say absolutely anything – and at the end of the day, after they’ve come in and built the houses, say we’ve changed our mind,” said Tim Tucker, who was chairman of the Ewa Beach Community Benefits Committee in the 1990s, which was tasked with negotiating community benefits with Haseko in exchange for the development.
The company stressed that the marina would create hundreds of jobs at a time when the local agricultural sector was contracting, emphasized the economic benefits to the state and promised that 50 percent of the boat slips would be reserved for the public at reasonable market prices, according to company documents. Haseko officials also argued, during a contested case proceeding, that the marina would provide youth with activities that would divert them from drugs and crime, according to a Honolulu Star-Bulletin article from 1996.
It’s not immediately clear to what degree the lagoon may stimulate jobs. Kris Tanahara, a spokeswoman for the company said that Haseko was still working on a master plan for the project.
Tucker said that he didn’t think there would be many.
“The slogan back then, was that they were building a community where you could live, work and play,” he said. “How many people are going to be able to live, work and play in a recreational lagoon?”
While residents say they are considering suing Haseko, attorneys say legal recourse could prove difficult.
There are two main issues: whether homebuyers have a case against the company for selling homes under the belief that there would be a marina, and whether the state and county have legal authority to enforce the company’s promises.
In addition to reclassifying the former pineapple fields, the county issued numerous zoning approvals and permits for the project.
David Callies, a Honolulu land use attorney, said that in order for there to be a legal case against Haseko, the marina would have to be explicitly spelled out as a condition of its land reclassification or county zoning approvals.
The ruling by the LUC does say that the “petitioner shall complete the development of the petition area in substantial compliance with the representations made before the Land Use Commission.” And Haseko acknowledged that “technically speaking” it was not in full compliance with the conditions when it downgraded the size of the marina. The company had to go back to the LUC to get an amendment to its conditions.
The LUC’s executive director declined to comment for this story but confirmed that Haseko hadn’t filed a request to amend its agreement as of earlier this week.
But the commission does have the power to switch the land back to its agricultural classification if it determines that the developer is not complying with conditions.
State planning director Jesse Souki, who is also a land use attorney, said that this was rare, but pointed to a recent case on the Big Island.
The LUC recently voted to revoke a developer’s urban land classification in South Kohala. The developer, Bridge Aina Lea is now suing the commission for $35.7 million. Commissioners took the action in large part because the company failed to complete 385 affordable housing units on time.
Souki said the implications of switching the land classification back to agricultural are unclear and would likely be sorted out in court. He doubted that a judge would rule that the South Kohala houses would have to be torn down, but said it could stop the developer from moving forward on plans for future development.
Robert Harris, an attorney and executive director of the Sierra Club, which opposed the Haseko marina in the 1990s, said that developers had a track record in Hawaii of not fulfilling promises and that it was important to make sure that companies were bound by time limits for project development. He noted the case of Turtle Bay on Oahu’s North Shore, where the developer’s land use reclassification 25 years ago included conditions that required it to build five new hotels, condominiums, park space and a wetland marsh, which it has yet to do.
A review of documents found that Haseko’s marina had no deadline.
LoPresti, who bought a townhome in Haseko’s Hoakalei development, said that the company made the marina a major part of its sales pitch and took him on a tour of the proposed site.
He said he wouldn’t have bought the home if he knew it wasn’t going to be built and that he and other residents are considering suing the company.
“I think that everyone understands that changes happen, but it seems clear that Haseko planned to sell the homes, and then announce the change in plans,” he said.
Haseko and real estate agents have advertised the marina as a major selling point of the development.
On its website, Haseko still says that the development’s “premiere world-class destination will feature one of the largest marinas in the state.”
The marina has been a valued marketing tool for the company. In the mid-1990s, after the state imposed restrictions on the marina’s drainage, prompting the company to scale back the development from 110 to 70 acres, the company was not pleased.
“It greatly altered the character of some of the residential neighborhoods that Haseko had planned for Ocean Pointe, and Haseko lost the opportunity to market all of its high-end single family units as unique marina waterfront homes,” according to a company document submitted to state officials.
Not all residents are upset about the scrapped marina.
Kent Hoover is stationed on Oahu with the army and bought a home in the Haseko development in 2009. He said the company sold the marina as a “big thing,” but that he wasn’t a boater so wasn’t disappointed.
“I think some people could care less and some people think it’s a better thing,” he said.
He noted the environmental concerns involved in removing thousands of yards of sand and coral.
“They had a lot of problems with the sacred coral people,” he said.
But for homebuyers who had envisioned a future of setting sail around the leeward coast from a harbor yards away from their front yard, they may have little legal recourse.
Homeowners don’t have any basis for a lawsuit if the marina is only in the marketing or promotional materials, according to Callies. He said it has to be specified in the private covenant between the developer and homebuyer.
LoPresti provided Civil Beat with a copy of his agreement, which is several hundred pages long. There was no explicit promise of a marina in the agreement. But the packet opens with the company’s vision statement. The second sentence of the document says that the neighborhood “offers home buyers a unique opportunity to become part of a major new marina resort that is taking shape on the Ewa Plain.”
LoPresti said that the company’s marketing seemed like a “bait and switch,” and questioned whether Haseko continued to market the marina to homebuyers while knowing that they planned to construct a lagoon.
Haseko said that it had always been truthful and was excited about the benefits that the alternative plan would provide for residents.
“We understand that some residents are disappointed with our recent decision to transform the originally planned marina into a recreational lagoon,” said Tam in a statement. “Haseko has always been open and honest with the community regarding our plans for the development of Ocean Pointe and Hoakalei.”