Hawaii state and city officials have reached a $48.5 million deal with Turtle Bay Resort to conserve more than 600 acres of the resort’s land that was slated for development.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced the agreement on Thursday at the Hawaii State Capitol along with Attorney General David Louie, Sen. Clayton Hee, Turtle Bay’s CEO Drew Stotesbury, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Honolulu City Council Chairman Ernie Martin, the Trust for Public Land Hawaiian Islands Program Director Lea Hong, and North Shore Community Land Trust Executive Director Douglass Cole.

If approved by the Legislature, the deal would establish a conservation easement on the resort’s property by Kawela Bay and Kahuku Point on Oahu’s North Shore. That means that the resort would enter into a legal agreement with the state to preserve 665 acres of land in perpetuity, a significant step after years of legal and political fights over the resort’s plans to expand.

The agreement still depends on receiving $40 million from the Legislature, which is in the process of deciding the state budget.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Ige said in a statement that he’s happy about the deal and will consider it “in a fiscally responsible manner.”

The City and County of Honolulu would contribute $5 million to the effort and the Trust for Public Land would add another $3.5 million. The hotel’s owner, Replay Resort, would retain ownership of the property and be responsible for maintaining it, but neither it nor any future owners would be allowed to develop the land.

The conservation easement would include two public parks, wetlands, a trail system and oceanfront access. The area also includes an existing golf course that the public would need permission to enter.

At Thursday’s press conference, the mood was jovial as all the stakeholders congratulated each other on reaching an agreement.

“This combination of private and public coordination, collaboration and cooperation has borne fruit in terms of keeping the country country and respecting the rights of those who felt strongly about development and jobs,” Abercrombie said.

Caldwell joked that this might be the only time government officials, business executives and environmentalists would agree on anything.

Cole, from the North Shore Community Land Trust, echoed that sentiment: “It’s rare we have these opportunities where all interests are aligned.”

It’s Not Over Yet

Hawaii residents have for years been battling Turtle Bay Resort’s plans to add more hotels and homes on its pristine shorefront property.

The issue has become a lightning rod for people frustrated about the urbanization of Oahu and transformation of vast tracts of land into expensive vacation homes. It’s rare to drive up to the North Shore without seeing signs protesting development. “Keep the Country Country” has become a common phrase to emphasize the rural area’s resistance to becoming another Waikiki.

Despite the excitement surrounding Thursday’s announcement, the conflict over the resort’s growth is far from settled. Even if the conservation easement comes to fruition, the company still plans to add 625 units in two hotels and 100 homes.

Stotesbury said the company is applying for subdivision approval this year and may begin construction in another two years.

Fewer than 800 units is a far cry from the 3,500 rooms the resort originally planned or the 1,375 units cited in Replay Resort’s most recent environmental analysis. But residents are still concerned about the expansion’s potential impact on the area.

The environmental group Hawaii Sierra Club, community group Keep the North Shore Country and hospitality workers’ union Unite Here Local 5 are all currently suing the resort, contending that its most recent environmental impact statement is flawed.

Robert Harris, director of the Hawaii Sierra Club, said the organization hasn’t yet decided whether or not it will continue with its lawsuit in light of the conservation easement agreement.

“It depends on whether the community concerns have been resolved,” he said in an email. “Specifically, we want to know how the easement will help alleviate traffic impacts and harm to endangered species. We’re committed to protecting the health and well-being of the North Shore community, and that commitment guides our future legal efforts.”

But even if the Sierra Club backs out, both Keep the North Shore Country and Unite Here Local 5 have pledged to continue their court battles.

Gil Riviere from Keep the North Shore Country said he’s excited about and very supportive of the conservation easement, but that the organization still wants the company to redo its most recent environmental impact statement.

The group, along with the Sierra Club, originally sued the resort in 2006 and won, forcing the resort to re-evaluate the potential environmental impacts of its expansion plan. But both organizations filed lawsuits again last December contending that the company’s latest analysis is inadequate.

“Our goal has always been for a proper environmental review,” Riviere said.

Eric Gill from Unite Here Local 5 called the conservation easement “a great first step” toward protecting land on the North Shore.

“We’re proud of our role,” he said. “Had we not filed our lawsuit in 2006, the place would be covered in condos.”

The union was the first to legally question the resort’s plan to move forward with adding 3,500 units even though it had received zoning approval and conducted its environmental analysis two decades earlier.

Although Stotesbury from Turtle Bay Resort said the company hasn’t decided what kind of units the new hotels would include, Gill said he’s worried they will be condos or timeshares and won’t provide many quality jobs for the community.

“We’re concerned that those issues not be swept under the rug,” Gill said.

Contact Anita Hofschneider via email at anita@civilbeat.com or on Twitter at @ahofschneider

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