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Homeowners in the Ewa communities of Ocean Pointe and Hoakalei are complaining that the man-made recreational lagoon serving their communities contains algae.
The green, crunchy algae known as chara, or “skunkweed” because of its foul odor, is viewed by some residents as another disappointment after the developer, Haseko, scrapped its plans for a long-promised marina in favor of a scaled-down lagoon.
Felicia Felix, a Hoakalei resident, said she’s concerned about getting tangled in the algae and is further put off by what Haseko is charging residents to swim in the lagoon: $840 annually, with a one-year commitment. She hasn’t signed up.
A portion of the lagoon opened to a limited number of residents in August, while the rest is still under construction.
Officials at Haseko, a Tokyo-based, multi-billion-dollar real estate firm, were concerned enough about the algae and its effects on the lagoon’s water quality that they had 500 metric tons of it removed from the western and center regions of the lagoon last year, the equivalent weight of about 100 adult elephants.
That’s according to documents and emails of Haseko officials that are part of a class-action lawsuit filed against the developer last year. The documents were provided to Civil Beat by an attorney representing residents who are suing Haseko for not following through with the marina, which had been advertised as a centerpiece of the resort community. The case has just gained class-action status.
In 2012, consultants for Haseko estimated that it would cost $104,000 a year to keep the algae in check and “maximize future water quality,” according to the internal emails.
However, Haseko now says that it no longer needs to remove the chara because its growth at the bottom of the lagoon is self-limiting.
“While we initially planned and budgeted for the mitigation of the chara algae in the lagoon, it has proven unnecessary,” Sharene Saito Tam, a vice president at Haseko, told Civil Beat by email. “Given this, we anticipate future costs associated with mitigation of chara algae in the lagoon will be minimal.”
Tam didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, instead providing emailed responses via the company’s communications firm, Becker Communications, which has tightly managed interactions with the press regarding Haseko’s development.
Environmental consultants for Haseko who worked on the chara issue also didn’t respond to interview requests. Charlie Morgan, one of the consultants, provided Civil Beat with the following emailed explanation about the algae through Becker.
“When the growth gets about three feet high, it sloughs off and fairly quickly decays, with most of the organic matter consumed by the bacteria, snails, fish,etc. and the inorganic portion (calcium carbonate) adding to the sediment load,” he said.
Morgan added that the chara’s growth hasn’t exceeded three feet.
Haseko’s draft environmental impact statement on the lagoon, filed with the state in July, suggests that more study of the chara is needed to determine its effect on water quality.
“The harvest of chara should be suspended until its role and resilience is more clearly understood,” according to the EIS. “The system is now at risk for instability.”
The EIS also indicates that Haseko plans to drill saltwater wells in order to help flush the lagoon’s water to avoid stagnation.
Haseko is currently seeking a zoning change for the property since it decided to build a lagoon instead of a marina, necessitating the new EIS. The city’s Department of Planning and Permitting must sign off on the zoning change, while the Honolulu City Council can include conditions on the permit to address any environmental concerns, according to George Atta, director of DPP.
Matt LoPresti, a Hoakalei resident who was recently elected as a state representative, has led opposition to Haseko’s decision to scrap its marina plans. He said he wasn’t satisfied by Haseko’s assurances about the water quality.
“It’s very clear to me that we need an independent study,” LoPresti said. “We need the state Department of Health to weigh in if they’re going to be selling this as a public swimming hole. I want to make sure it is safe. If people are going to be spending time in it and their children are going to be swimming in it then we need to make sure it is safe at the bare minimum.”
Janice Okubo, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Health, said that the beach fronting the lagoon is tested for water quality, but she wasn’t sure whether the health department has oversight over the lagoon, which rests on private property.
When Civil Beat visited on a recent weekday, the lagoon, which is surrounded by a chain linked fence and watched over by a security guard, was vacant. A few beach chairs laid out for members sat empty next to an unoccupied picnic area and portable toilet. Canoes rested on the banks.
While Haseko has sold more than 900 homes in Hoakalei, only 84 people have signed up for membership in the Wai Kai Hale Club, which provides exclusive access to the lagoon, according to Tam.
Tam said that the company hasn’t set a completion date for the lagoon, which Haseko began excavating a decade ago, and there is no set date for when it will be open to other residents of the adjoining community of Ocean Pointe, or the public.
However, a protected public swimming area that is planned for the west side is expected to be open within two years, she said.
“We have not set a completion date for all the amenities envisioned for around the entire lagoon as that is dependent on future resort/commercial development,” Tam said by email. “It’s important to note that we will honor our commitment to build a pathway around the lagoon to encourage people to patronize the businesses planned along the waterfront and participate in the many recreational activities and cultural education opportunities provided by the project.”
Haseko officials announced in 2011 that they were forgoing plans for the marina and that the body of water would instead remain a lagoon. Instead of hosting opulent boat races on the scale of America’s Cup, as the marina was initially been billed, it would accommodate swimmers and stand-up paddle boarders.
In their lawsuit, residents are alleging the developer engaged in deceptive advertising when it sold hundreds of units in the 1,100-acre, master-planned community, originally called the Ewa Marina Community Development Project.
Felix said that as of now, the lagoon and the area around it is “a big mess.”
“We bought into the dream of it all,” she said. “It was called the marina resort.”