Bumper-to-bumper traffic inches along parts of Kamehameha Highway on Oahu’s North Shore on the weekends. And if there’s an accident, a surf contest or the waves are up, it can grind to a halt.

“Traffic is horrendous on weekends and it is just bad on most afternoons,” said Gil Riviere, a former lawmaker who’s president of Keep the North Shore Country, a community group.

When traffic is backed up, it can take 45 minutes to go the 1.5 miles from Laniakea to Haleiwa Bypass, one of the worst stretches of the 36-mile highway, he estimates.

A proposed major expansion of Turtle Bay Resort is expected to add thousands of cars to the road and make the traffic situation significantly worse along the two-lane highway that fronts some of Hawaii’s most famous beaches, according to a new environmental study of the project.

Vancouver-based Replay Resorts, the property developer, hopes to break ground in 2014 on two new hotels totaling 625 rooms and 750 residences along the largely undeveloped coastline.1

But when is the traffic just too much?

State and city officials will be reviewing a recently completed supplementary environmental impact statement that is hundreds of pages and includes a detailed traffic analysis. It’s up to the city Department of Planning and Permitting to accept the EIS.

But officials from both DPP and the state Department of Transportation, which is expected to comment on the EIS, told Civil Beat that they have no authority to stop the project even if they think traffic congestion, or other environmental impacts, would cause problems.

The Hawaii Sierra Club, which sued the city in 2006 over the project and prompted the new EIS, disagrees. Executive director Robert Harris says the city can take into account environmental impacts, such as traffic, in determining whether to approve a subdivision permit for the project. It’s a permit that developers say is critical to the $770 million project moving forward.

The dispute could lead to another round of legal action involving the resort.

Keepin’ the Country, Country

The North Shore is famous for its stunning beaches and big waves that attract flocks of the world’s best surfers during winter surf season. Typified by a laid back bohemian surf culture, the area also attracts the rich and famous who have dotted the landscape with multi-million dollar homes.

The beach communities are a stark contrast to the mega-resorts of Waikiki and the west side of Oahu, as well as the densely populated city and urban sprawl of Honolulu. And local residents opposing the project say they want to keep it that way. For years, they’ve waged a “keep the country, country” campaign to stop Turtle Bay’s expansion.

“We think it would be tremendously detrimental to the quality of life on the North Shore and Koolau Loa,” said Tim Vandeveer, a member of the Defend Oahu Coalition, a community organization that has mobilized against the expansion.

The resort’s plans have touched off debate over development on Oahu, including the challenges of infrastructure on an island with limited land and resources. Traffic has become a major sticking point with opponents who argue that the area just can’t handle that many cars and that the two-lane highway that serves as the major artery of the area has little room to expand.

“When you factor in auto accidents, it’s just hours and hours and hours,” said Vandeveer, of traffic delays. “We just don’t have the infrastructure.”

Traffic Grades Just Short of Failure

How bad will traffic be if the resort expands? Urban planners and traffic analysts invoke a standard rating scale, called levels of service.

Just like in school, traffic corridors and intersections can score a grade of A through F, explained Brian Gibson, executive director of the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization. The quasi-government agency is in charge of coordinating long-range transportation planning for Oahu.

An A means the traffic is very light, flowing at the speed limit with practically no delays.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is E and F.

“E and F is typically when people start calling on the phone,” said Gibson. “There’s a lot of delay, things have really just broken down to standstill traffic.”

“It’s safe to say that once you hit F, the corridor has failed. … E, that would be something just short of failure.”

Turtle Bay’s expansion plans will push parts of the highway running through Kahuku, Haleiwa and Kahalulu into the E zone during peak travel times by 2025, generally weekends and certains times on weekdays, according to the new EIS.

The intersection of Kahekili Highway and Kamehameha Highway, currently an A, will be downgraded to an F during the weekend peak hour, according to the study. Absent the traffic generated by a Turtle Bay expansion, it’s expected to be rated C, by 2025. Traffic will increase substantially in some areas, such as Kahuku where there will be 60 percent more cars on the road during peak times.

The EIS and traffic analysis took into account expected future development, but excluded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Envision Laie project, the other major development proposal for the North Shore. The project aims to build hundreds of homes, shops, churches and a 200-room hotel in the Mormon enclave of Laie. The EIS notes that the Envision Laie development hasn’t received key state and city approvals and it’s not clear if it will move forward.

Much of the increased traffic from Turtle Bay — 40 percent on weekends — is attributable to benefits that the developer has promised to the community, such as a farmer’s market and parks, according to the study.

While traffic will get worse with the expansion of the resort, Drew Stotesbury, CEO of Replay Resorts, notes that traffic is already bad in some areas and will continue to deteriorate with projected growth that is independent of the resort. He hopes the Turtle Bay project will spur the state to embark on long-awaited improvements.

“We are hoping that we will be a positive catalyst, that a project of our scope will require DOT and other agencies to more pro-actively address some of the issues that have, frankly, been going on for some time,” he said. “We are not creating the problem. It already exists at different peak times.”

In addition to traffic congestion, there’s also the issue of noise if the resort expands. Noise from the increased traffic is expected to exceed a federal threshold for acceptable levels in sections of the highway that border the property, impacting homes. The EIS proposes several mitigation measures, including increasing setbacks, building walls along the highway to block the noise and having people close their doors and windows and use air conditioning.

The EIS did not study how much lounder it will be for the homes that line Kamehameha Highway outside of the resort. Because the hills descending from the Koolau Range toward the coast created a narrow strip for building, many North Shore homes hug the mauka and makai sides of the highway.

Lee Sichter, a land use policy expert who was paid by the developer to conduct the EIS, said that it wouldn’t have been feasible to study the noise impacts of traffic throughout the area.

“Doing a noise study on all 36 miles of the corridor seemed to be beyond the scope,” he said. “So we focused on what would be the noise impacts along the property. We just didn’t deem it possible to do a study on every single structure that surrounds the highway along the corridor.”

Moving Forward

Regardless of the traffic situation, Replay Resorts says it has all its major authorizations to move forward on the project.

In the 1980s, the former owner obtained key state and city project approvals that required extensive vetting of the project’s impacts on the environment, economy and infrastructure.

Representatives of Replay Resorts say they have met extensively with the community, scaled the project back significantly from its original plans which included five hotels and promised community benefits ranging from affordable housing to a farmer’s market and parks.

Stotesbury concedes there is nothing that can be done to offset all of the traffic impacts. But the company is responsible for costs associated with controlling traffic around the resort, as well as paying its share of costs associated with traffic improvements downstream from the project.

He said building houses also contributes to traffic. “Houses are being built all the time on the North Shore,” he said. “Can (Turtle Bay) be a traffic neutral project? No, I don’t think so. Can we mitigate it? Yes.”

The developer plans to build a new entrance and a new road that runs through the Turtle Bay property, install traffic signals, and create dedicated turning lanes in the resort’s vicinity. But specific improvements to Kamehameha Highway, stretching west to Haleiwa or south toward Kahuku have not been specified.

Ken Tatsuguchi, a state highways planner for the Hawaii Department of Transportation, said that the department would be commenting on the new EIS, but ultimately it wasn’t up to them to say yes or no to the project proceeding.

“Our role isn’t to approve the development,” he said. “If people are really worried about the traffic impacts, their questions need to be submitted to (the city’s planning department),” he said. “People are going to be using our state highways, but we don’t have control over how much is built in that area.”

He said the agency in charge of deciding whether there will be future improvements to the highway is the Oahu Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Gibson, it’s executive director, said that there are no plans for upgrades to Kamehameha Highway other than a safety project that would add guard rails and cross walk signs. The reason is that the organization wants to limit development, and a highway that can accommodate more traffic leads to more hotels and housing.

Gibson said the agency is sensitive to the calls to keep the area’s rural character. Adding more lanes to Kamehameha probably would improve the flow of traffic, but it would also tend to attract more development, he said.

So Why Do a New EIS?

Kuilima Development Co., the previous property owner, initially planned to expand the resort in 1986, after the state approved the land’s reclassification from agricultural to urban and the city granted its zoning application. But it never did any upgrades.

Twenty years later, Oaktree Capital, which took over the property, again began moving forward on development plans, but was stymied in 2006 when the Sierra Club and Keep the North Shore Country, sued the city.

The environmental groups argued that the project’s 1985 environmental impact statement was too old and didn’t take into account changing conditions. They said the city should not have granted preliminary approval for a subdivision.

The Hawaii Supreme Court agreed. In 2010, the court ruled that traffic and environmental factors had changed and needed to be reassessed.

“For DPP to assume that conditions would not have changed over twenty years is unreasonable, especially given the ‘new evidence’ with respect to traffic, monk seals, and green sea turtles,” the court wrote in its decision.

The number of endangered seals and turtles in the area has increased in recent years.

But even thought the new EIS shows increased traffic or other problems, the project could still move ahead, according to Gary Gill, deputy director for environmental health for the state Department of Health and interim director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.

“You could theoretically draft an EIS that discloses that the project is going to destroy the last remaining native endangered species, and so long as you disclose it and go through the process and provide a chance to comment, the document is acceptable,” he said.

This differs from the federal EIS process, said Gill, where controls over development rest with the document itself. In Hawaii, the permits control the project, some of which require a review of EIS data. While Replay Resorts obtained state and city approvals for the project in the 1980s, there’s still one permit — the subdivision permit — that could determine whether the development moves forward.

DPP says it’s only responsibility is to decide whether a developer has followed the rules for producing an EIS, including seeking public comment.

Jiro Sumada, the director of DPP, told Civil Beat that if a company meets all the requirements “then they get issued a (permit). It’s not considered a discretionary permit.”

But Harris, the Hawaii Sierra Club’s executive director who is an attorney, says the city can reject an application based on traffic or other environmental impacts. He said that the city does have the discretion to stop the project.

Harris said the Supreme Court only orders supplemental EIS’s on discretionary permits. “So there is really no other conclusion that you can reach but that preliminary subdivision approval is discretionary,” he said.

Harris suggested that the issue may end up back in court.

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