HANALEI, Kauai — Here on the island’s rural north shore, waterfalls drape down green velvet mountains like silver ribbons. Farmers work knee-deep in centuries-old taro fields and nene waddle across the one-lane bridge into town.
From mauka to makai, lush ridges hug a miles-long crescent of sand that rims an idyllic bay. Surfers ride waves in the distance and keiki do flips off an old pier that juts into the water.
Postcard perfect. That’s the way a lot of longtime residents and tourists describe Hanalei. But to others, it’s so much more than a pretty place in the Pacific that’s remained relatively unchanged for decades.
A growing number of concerned community members are protesting a plan to build multi-million-dollar homes along the eastern ridge that borders the town’s world-famous bay. They fear their pristine viewplane will be ruined, changing the character of Hanalei in the process.
“No one is saying stop the project; it’s just the wrong place,” said Carl Imparato, a member of the recently formed Hanalei Bay Coalition that is fighting the development along with other groups like Save Hanalei Ridge. “This is not just another hotel in Poipu or another hotel in Princeville. No one has ever proposed such a desecration.”
Ohana Hanalei bought the 122-acre property in 2007 for $75 million. The California-based real estate company wants to sell 34 residential lots along the ridge over Hanalei River and build 86 hotel units on 64 of those acres. The firm also wants to revitalize a 600-year-old ancient Hawaiian fishpond on the property. The land is covered with thick vegetation, save for a sprinkling of cement foundations from an abandoned hotel project in the 1980s.
The landowner’s development team is Ohana Real Estate Investors (Civil Beat publisher Pierre Omidyar is the company’s principal investor.) The company accepted an invitation from the Hanalei-to-Haena Community Association to make a public presentation and answer questions about the project Tuesday evening at Hanalei School.
About 400 people packed the elementary school’s cafeteria, with many spilling out its doors. Some in the crowd, which ranged from keiki to kupuna, waved signs like “Hanalei Valley Stay Pono” as they strained to hear Michelle Swartman, OREI director of land and community development, explain what Hanalei Plantation Resort would look like.
“We’re in it for the long haul,” she said in an interview at the project site before the meeting. “We want to do everything as required by law and don’t intend to skip any steps.”
Swartman, an Oahu native who lives on the north shore with her Kauai-born husband and children, said she understands the community’s desire to protect Hanalei.
“A lot of time, fear of the unknown creates paranoia,” she said, adding that she hoped the public meeting would help dispel myths of “McMansions” and other erroneous conceptions of what the project would look like when completed. “When people say, ‘Save Hanalei,’ well, guess what? We want that too. We can’t just leave all of this as is.”
For decades, community members said the only real eyesore has been the nearby Princeville Hotel, now the St. Regis. The resort straddles the bluff at the northernmost point of the same stretch of land Ohana Hanalei wants to develop.
Swartman said Hanalei Plantation Resort will be different — more integrated with the landscape, with limits on building height, massing, footprint, walls and roofs. The colors will be earth-tone and the building materials non-reflective.
She also stressed how early in the process the project is. Planning started in 2011, but the development is still in its infancy. An environmental review process has begun, but OREI has yet to apply for the state and county permits needed before any construction starts, expected within the next few years.
Imparato said he could tolerate the 86 bungalows, as the developers describe them, on the Princeville side of the ridge and the nine residential lots that would be mostly hidden from view. But he said there are no design guidelines that can mask the 25 luxury homes that would be in plain sight on the Hanalei Beach side of the ridge.
He also doesn’t buy Swartman’s argument that “privacy works both ways,” that future homeowners would shroud their properties in landscaping to guard themselves from onlookers below.
“There’s an old saying: ‘You can put a suit on a pig and what have you got? A pig in a suit.’ And that’s what this is,” Imparato said.
Emotions ran high starting with the first person on a 17-page list of people who wanted to testify at the meeting after the developer’s Oahu-based architect finished a presentation on the project.
Hayley Ham Young-Giorgio, who grew up on the north shore and has deep family roots here, said she changed her life to preserve Hanalei’s rareness and authenticity. She was one of many 20-somethings in attendance, but there were also plenty old-timers.
“This is a very sacred place and it’s not meant to be developed,” said John Fehring, who’s lived in Hanalei for 40 years.
“We’ve been fooled before,” Kauai resident Nick Beck said to much applause.
More than 5,000 people have signed a petition opposing the proposed homesites on the ridge, Imparato said.
Standing in the same grassy house lot at the project site as Swartman had earlier in the day, Imparato looked out at the bay on one side and then the St. Regis Resort and Princeville condos on the other side.
He said community members recently celebrated a 35-year fight to prevent the state from widening Hanalei’s historic one-lane bridges and a 25-year battle over commercial boating.
With those wars essentially won, Imparato said the efforts to preserve Hanalei’s character would be all for naught if homes are built on the Hanalei River ridge as proposed.
“We will fight it on every legal basis that is available,” he said.
Swartman said OREI is a developer, but also a landowner and part of the community.
She said the project’s real public benefit won’t be the construction jobs that will come, but having the homes and hotel units done in an environmentally and culturally sensitive way.
Beyond that, Swartman said the restoration of the 10-acre ancient aquaculture pond and Puu Poa Marsh will be the biggest contribution. Fifty of the 86 hotel units will ring this area, with the others running along the valley out of view.
Several people who testified wanted to know where eBay founder Pierre Omidyar was and learn more about his role in the project.
Eric Crispin, OREI vice president, told the crowd that Omidyar is the primary investor in Ohana Holdings, which provided the money to purchase the property. He said Omidyar is not a member of the management team or board of directors.
Swartman said Omidyar focuses his energy on his philanthropic work, such as the Ulupono Initiative, entrusting others to manage his investments.
“It’s a fine line,” said Crispin, who struggled to answer the question of why the property should be developed because of frequent boos and interruptions. “We do have a difficult task. We understand this. We also have a sense of kuleana for the property.”
He said OREI is a development company, but defines success differently from others. Ultimately, Crispin said, the company wants to find a balance that is financially viable while respecting the environment and culture.
“The message that you don’t want any homes on the ridge, we’re not deaf. We hear that,” Crispin said. “But this is zoned land. This has been previously developed. I see heads shaking, I understand you would rather have nothing, but to us, that’s not viable.”
Swartman said the development team didn’t know how much the residential lots would sell for, but hoped the market would be favorable a few years from now.
The project’s development comes at a time when the county is making substantial efforts to preserve parts of the adjacent area in perpetuity.
In a public-private partnership, the county in December 2011 approved the $3 million purchase of a three-quarter acre parcel to expand Black Pot, a popular beach park on the opposite side of the river below the proposed development.
And this summer the county used eminent domain to effectively boot a longtime boatyard owner, Michael Sheehan, from his neighboring one-third acre property.
The crowd thinned as the meeting stretched into its third hour. The development team literally stood its ground, answering questions when called upon and listening intently as one speaker after another pleaded for the project to be scrapped.
Herb Lee facilitated the meeting well, maintaining a mostly civil discourse among a passionate group.