The small town of Laie on the North Shore of Oahu is a world away from urban Honolulu.
Home to just 6,000 residents, the community is predominantly Mormon and the site of the Polynesian Cultural Center, the Mormon Temple and Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
An aging sign announcing Laie welcomes visitors driving north on the two-lane highway that winds along the windward coast with breathtaking views of the mountains and ocean.
But times are changing. The Polynesian Cultural Center is in the midst of a $38 million redevelopment project to expand its tourist offerings. BYU-Hawaii is renovating old dormitories after recently constructing seven buildings, including six new dormitories to help house its growing student body.
Hawaii Reserves Inc., a land management company that develops property owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, is moving forward with plans to relocate a McDonald’s along Kamehameha Highway. The company sent out a press release announcing job vacancies at McDonald’s as well as a 144-room Marriott hotel that started construction this spring. The resort, set to open next year, replaces an old hotel that had fewer than 50 rooms.
These development projects and more are part of Envision Laie, which also calls for adding hundreds more homes in the area.
While many windward residents welcome opportunities for new jobs and homes, others passionately oppose the growth. Perhaps most controversial is a proposal for more than 800 homes on ranch land on the mauka side of Malaekahana.
The Honolulu City Council Zoning and Planning Committee is mulling the housing development as part of Bill 47, the Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan, which outlines the future growth of communities on the windward coast. Its approval would be a big boost for the Malaekahana housing development.
Laie’s transformation is unsettling to George Cox, a 65-year-old pastor from Pupukea and employee at Turtle Bay Resort who has seen a lot of change growing up on Oahu.
He remembers Hawaii Kai before the marina was dragged and the hills were dotted with homes. He moved to Kailua and watched the sleepy town become a tourist hub, to the chagrin of many residents. Now he looks at what’s happening in Laie and wonders if it’s part of the same trend.
Cox hopes not. Like many Oahu residents, he loves the rural feel of the neighborhood. Although he wishes all his kids on the mainland could find jobs here and afford to come home, he fears a new housing development in Malaekahana might damage the final stronghold of Oahu’s pristine beauty.
“It’s the last and the best,” he said.
Advocates for Envision Laie say the plan provides much-needed housing to counteract rising home prices that force many residents to move away or try to squeeze multiple families under one roof.
“I work four jobs and I want my children to live here,” said Kerry Moeai, a resident of Kahuku and a member of the Koolau Loa Neighborhood Board.
Pane Maetoga, president of the Laie Community Association, said the development is also necessary to support the Polynesian Cultural Center and BYU-Hawaii, which employ two out of every three people in the community.
The university wants to expand its enrollment from 2,750 to 5,000 students to be more fiscally sustainable.
Mike Johanson, spokesman for BYU-Hawaii, said the potential new housing at Malaekahana is intended for local residents as well as faculty and other university staff members. He emphasized that the university wants to do what’s best for the community.
“We certainly don’t want to make this (town) look and feel different,” Johanson said.
George Atta, director of the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, also supports the plan, citing the “critical need for housing in Laie and the larger Koolau Loa region.”
In a statement, he noted that the average household in Laie has 4.89 people compared with the state average of 2.95, and that a significant number of residents want more affordable housing for their families.
“As envisioned by HRI, the adjacent Malaekahana area, as well as continued expansion in Laie, could address this need,” Atta wrote.
But some residents of neighboring towns say the proposal runs afoul of the Oahu General Plan, which calls for keeping the area rural and ensuring “an undesirable spreading of development is prevented.”
Many windward residents don’t believe the new homes would be affordable and would actually be sold to Koolau Loa residents. They are also concerned that any new jobs would pay low wages, and suspect they’d go to students rather than the broader community.
Gil Riviere, a former lawmaker who leads an organization called Keep the North Shore Country, compares Envision Laie with the controversial planned expansion of Turtle Bay Resort.
The city, state and Trust for Public Lands recently agreed to pay $48.5 million to preserve 665 acres at the resort, but two new hotels are still planned.
“This is the chance to not make the mistake they made in Turtle Bay,” Riviere said.
While the Envision Laie team hoped to gain community support through workshops and social media outreach, the process has been rocky at best.
Choon James, a member of the Public Advisory Committee on the Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan, said the committee didn’t endorse the housing development at Malaekahana in its 2009 draft, but that the city inserted the proposal into the latest draft of the plan anyway.
But Atta from the Department of Planning and Permitting said the proposal wasn’t on the table when the advisory committee was meeting. HRI had withdrawn it to try to get more community input and support for Envision Laie, and DPP added the housing development to the plan in 2010, he said.
Opposition to the plan has surfaced at the Koolau Loa Neighborhood Board. The board, which governs Laie, Kahana, Punaluu, Kahuku, Hauula and Kaaawa, endorsed a proposal for 1,200 homes in Malaekahana in 2009, but the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission ruled the decision void in 2010, saying the board violated the Sunshine Law by limiting public testimony.
The conflict played out again Wednesday evening when Andrea Anixt from Kaaawa, Lea Minton from Punaluu and Marvin Iseki from Hauula contested the board’s December endorsement of the latest version of the Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan in a four-hour-long hearing before the Neighborhood Commission at Honolulu Hale.
Anixt, Minton and Iseki said the board members who voted for the project failed to represent the interests of the Koolau Loa community as a whole. They also said several members had conflicts of interests because they or their family members are employed by BYU-Hawaii and HRI.
The board’s chairwoman, Verla Moore, vehemently denied the allegations, saying that the board painstakingly ensured that all the rules were followed.
She emphasized that the homes would be for the “poor and unknown,” instead of for rich people like GoPro CEO Nicholas Woodman, who made headlines that day for purchasing a $9.2 million property on the North Shore.
She suggested that the three residents who criticized the board appeared to be haole while many on the board were Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.
“You look at my board members, you look at their faces. I go back 150 years here,” Moore said to the commission. “You look at our opposition. When did they come here? 10 years ago?”
“We let you in, let us guys stay,” she added.
Minton, who testified next on behalf of the Defend Oahu Coalition, said she was born and raised in Hawaii and went to Kahuku High School.
“We’re not here to discuss white people versus Hawaiians,” Minton said. “When you sit in a position of power and you’re elected to that neighborhood board, you’re there to represent everybody.”
Divisions over the proposed housing development will likely figure prominently in this year’s race for Senate District 23.
Riviere, a Democrat, is hoping to re-enter politics by winning the seat currently filled by Sen. Clayton Hee, who is vacating it to run for lieutenant governor.
On Tuesday afternoon, Riviere drove along Kamehameha Highway posting green campaign signs near anti-development signs. He calls himself a “leading critic” of the housing proposal at Malaekahana, and has framed his campaign around preserving the rural quality of the district. Riviere believes that the church should build on land behind the university. (Johanson from BYU-Hawaii said adding housing in that area would hem in the university’s growth.)
But approaching Laie, it’s a more common to see red signs in support of Rep. Richard Fale. The Republican candidate for the state Senate told Civil Beat he wasn’t familiar with the latest version of the development proposal, but he supports more housing to help the community.
Fale, a member of the Mormon Church, said perpetuating the status quo is unacceptable because that means “poor people out and rich people in.”
“The current trajectory is if you’re poor, you can’t afford to live out there. And that’s not right,” he said. “We need something to change that and to help a lot of the local families to be able to stay where they’re born and raised.”
Proponents of more housing at Malaekahana emphasize that the proposal is still in the conceptual stage.
Bill 47 has to pass the City Council Zoning and Planning Committee and the full Council before it would land on Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s desk. Then the developer would have to apply for zone changes and other permits.
Although Caldwell has supported the project, it’s unclear what council members will do with the bill.
Councilman Ikaika Anderson, who leads the Zoning and Planning Committee, said he is waiting for Councilman Ernie Martin from the North Shore to finish discussing the issue with the community before calling a hearing for the bill.
As of now, Anderson said he doesn’t think that the housing development should be approved. Last fall, he helped usher through a zone change to allow a 3,500-unit housing project on agricultural land in Koa Ridge that was lambasted by environmentalists.
Anderson said that the proposed housing in Malaekahana contradicts the island’s general plan, which calls for growth in west and central Oahu.
“I’m just not convinced it’s pono,” he said.