Honolulu’s director of planning and permitting is contemplating the creation of a new rural land development standard to make it easier and less expensive to build new homes in rural parts of Oahu.
That is among many ideas George Atta is exploring as he ponders ways to address the needs of a growing population without changing Oahu’s urban boundaries.
Atta sees creating a new rural development standard as a way to make the construction of more affordable housing possible for Oahu residents who want to live near their jobs in rural areas.
This idea is also favored by Eric Beaver, the president of Hawaii Reserves Inc., the land development arm of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).
Beaver thinks such a designation could be created by adopting a new rural land ordinance or by adding a section to Honolulu’s current land use ordinance to deal with new housing development in rural Oahu.
All homes on Oahu must now follow standards required for urban construction, but a rural standard could allow, for example, more open space with fewer streetlights, sidewalks and other amenities than are required in urban developments.
“It is a way to have a different standard more in keeping with a rural area and to bring the cost of construction down,” said Beaver.
I spoke with Atta and Beaver in separate phone conversations over the weekend to try to find out what’s going to happen after the Honolulu City Council Planning and Zoning Committee last Thursday rejected Hawaii Reserves’ proposal to build 875 homes as well as commercial buildings, a light industrial business park, churches and a school on agricultural-zoned land it owns in Malaekahana.
The committee effectively stopped the progression of Hawaii Reserves’ new project called Envision Laie by deleting all mentions of development at Malaekahana from the Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan.
Hawaii Reserves wants to build its proposed new town on 300 of 900 acres it owns in Malaekahana between Laie and Kahuku.
Laie and Malaekahana are in Koolau Loa, the rural area hugging the cliffs of the Koolau mountains between Kaaawa and Kawela Bay.
The Malaekahana building issue is not over by a long shot.
City Council Chairman Ernest Martin says he will wait to schedule the three additional hearings on the council committee’s bill that blocks Malaekahana development until the revision of the Oahu General Plan is completed in the fall.
And when the revised Oahu General Plan is released, its new, broad development guidelines may have suggestions to make building in Malaekahana still worth considering.
But no matter how many changes are made to the Oahu General Plan, Hawaii Reserves will still have to get government okays from the City Council, the mayor and the state Land Use Commission to move the urban boundary if it wants to proceed with its Malaekahana proposal.
Planning Director Atta says when his department completes the revised General Plan he expects it will have new language to suggest the need for more housing construction in rural areas — parts of the island that in the last 40 years have been restricted to agricultural use and limited new housing prospects.
Atta says the development Hawaii Reserves is currently proposing for Malaekahana would retain the rural character of Koolau Loa because the project would increase the housing in the Koolau Loa area by only 1 percent.
But he says after the Council Planning Committee’s vote last week to block housing projects at Malaekahana, he will not put anything in the Oahu General Plan to specifically encourage Hawaii Reserves’ development.
Instead, Atta says, he’s considering inserting general guidelines for a new kind of development standard for rural areas on Oahu.
He says times have changed. Populations in Koolau Loa and other parts of rural Oahu are growing. The growing populations need homes they can afford to buy. He says the Oahu General Plan was never meant to have rigid boundaries.
Atta says if nothing is done about providing new housing in rural areas, the limited supply will make existing houses even more expensive and increase the exodus of longtime local residents from the area and exacerbate homelessness.
Atta would like to see what he calls an “organic growth” in rural areas. He says organic growth is analogous in land development to the growth of the human body. A body needs to grow or it dies, same with a village or town, without some small growth it shrivels up, fades away. He has seen this happen in towns on the mainland and villages in rural Hawaii.
Atta says options for more housing in the country include allowing new housing spread out between all the rural towns instead or allowing some towns to go vertical with four- and five-story buildings or allowing a new kind of rural development with housing clusters, free of some of the requirements that make urban housing developments expensive.
“If you prohibit the physical growth of an area, how do you maintain its vibrancy? What happens when all the children move out?” says Atta.
He says, “I believe it is possible to maintain the rural character of the Koolau Loa area by doubling the amount of new homes now allowed in the area if it’s done in a good way.”
Eric Beaver says Hawaii Reserves is disappointed about the planning committee’s decision but the company hopes to find a way in the months ahead to make building new homes at Malaekahana more palatable to the public.
Beaver says they are exploring many options to make the project more attractive, including building the housing units in a back valley in Malaekahana where they would be hidden from the highway.
“Everyone knows we have a housing crisis. We have to find a solution and I don’t believe telling people they have to leave the district to go and live in Central and West Oahu and then drive back to their jobs in Koolau Loa is the solution,” says Beaver.
Beaver says it is not an option to build the new homes on land Hawaii Reserves owns in Laie. He says an earlier Koolau Loa Sustainable Communities Plan designated areas for additional homes at Laie but that Hawaii Reserves discovered in less than a year that the areas were unsuitable. He says just about that time, Campbell Estate offered to sell the land at Malaekahana to Hawaii Reserves.
Beaver says some of the land originally designated for homes in Laie is flood prone and downwind from a sewage treatment plant. The cost to build there would make preparing the land and infrastructure for each lot $300,000 even before a house was erected. The other 50 acres designated are also unusable because they are reserved for additional student housing and other expansion needs of Brigham Young University-Hawaii.
Tim Vandeveer, co-chairman of the Defend Oahu Coalition, is among hundreds of Koolau Loa residents opposed to Hawaii Reserves’ proposal to expand the urban boundary by building on agriculture-zoned land in Malaekahana.
Vandeveer says Hawaii Reserves has plenty of land on which to expand in Laie, even with its plan to keep some land for expansion of the university.
“It may be more expensive to build more houses at Laie than at Malaekahana, but the church has enough money to do it,” says Vandeveer. “We want to dispel the notion they are promoting that they have no choice but to build on agricultural land.”
Beaver maintains the proposed development at Malaekana is the best option. It calls for the 875 housing units to be built over 25 years.
“If you prohibit the physical growth of an area, how do you maintain its vibrancy?” — Honolulu Planning Director George Atta
He says half of the units will be affordable, including rentals and affordable workforce houses on both fee simple property and affordable houses on leasehold land.
Beaver says the land leases would be long term at an average lease payment of $1,500 a year. The only time the lease would be increased would be when a lease was transferred. Lease rent increases would be only to address inflation. He says that would stop buyers from trying to flip the properties for more money.
He says by offering workforce housing on leased land Hawaii Reserves can restrict buyers to qualified families living and working in the Koolau Loa area.
Starting price for an affordable detached single family home would be about $310,000, less than half the median price for a home on Oahu.
The rest of the units would be sold to buyers who are able to pay market prices. He says the higher cost of the market units would help pay for the entire development.
Beaver says there would be some traffic impact but not much because the housing project would be mostly redistributing people who already live in the area and want to move out of crowded homes they share with many other family members.
He says three and sometimes four generations of a family are packed in a house. “Some of the family members move into the garage and then more building is done over the garage to accommodate additional family members. All the cars are out on the road.”
When it comes to amending the land use ordinance to create a new rural development standard, Beaver says, “ it would take a lot of work to amend current law or to create a new rural land use ordinance, but it has to happen.”
“A rural development standard would facilitate the kind of development we want. It would decrease the cost of infrastructure. It would decrease the cost of the homes and allow us to retain the rural character we want, and not just for Malaekahana but in other rural Oahu areas.”
“All we want to do is grow enough to sustain our community with homes they can afford over a long term basis.”