- Special Projects
One month after Ewa homeowners filed a lawsuit against Haseko Development for deciding to build a lagoon instead of a marina, Haseko representatives met with officials from the city Department of Planning and Permitting to discuss the project’s environmental impact analysis and zone change application.
According to notes from the August 2013 meeting written by Haseko vice president Sharene Tam, DPP’s chief planner Kathy Sokugawa gave the developer advice on how to navigate the City Council rezoning process.
“Worst case they will ask for recreational access to your lagoon,” Sokugawa said of the City Council. “It’s an opportunity for them to put in conditions. I would be more concerned that they think they will lose out on oversight because you won’t be in SMA (special management area) so they’ll pack on conditions.”
The meeting was one of about half a dozen between city officials and Haseko, according to a deposition by Haseko consultant Angela Fong.
Fong’s deposition is one of numerous documents that are part of a lawsuit by a group of homeowners against Haseko that resulted in a $27 million jury award in September. A judge later threw out the award, and the case is on appeal.
Fong did not reply to a request for comment for this story.
But documents in the case provide an inside look into how the city worked with Haseko. They also raise questions about whether it’s appropriate for city officials to so closely guide a developer through the permitting process.
Adding fuel to the homeowners concerns is the fact that a high-level planning official left his agency post and now is a consultant to Haseko.
David Tanoue, who was the director of the Department of Planning and Permitting, left the city for a job with the engineering firm R.M. Towill, where he now appears before the City Council to advocate for the lagoon project as a Haseko consultant.
Tanoue also declined to be interviewed for this story.
“I felt betrayed. The City and County government that’s supposed to be protecting the homeowners and consumers was instead working to undermine the promises made to them.” — Rep. Matt LoPresti, a Haseko homeowner
Terrance Revere, an attorney representing the homeowners, sent a letter to the city Ethics Commission and City Council members this month calling for an ethics investigation and urging DPP to end its private meetings with developers.
“Why are taxpayers paying Ms. Sokugawa to grease the wheels for Haseko in private monthly meetings?” Revere wrote. “Doesn’t she have the people’s work to do rather than Haseko’s?”
Revere also called for Sokugawa, Bob Stanfield and other DPP staffers who were involved with Haseko to be “barred from anything having to do with Haseko again.”
“Why is DPP collaborating with Haseko rather than regulating it?” Revere wrote. “Does DPP consider developers to be its real constituency? Why are these communications done in secret?”
Tam from Haseko declined Civil Beat’s request for an interview citing ongoing litigation. But she defended the private meetings in an emailed statement.
“Applicants of major permits are required to have a meeting with City Department of Planning and Permitting staff before submitting an application,” she said. “With larger projects such as Ocean Pointe-Hoakalei, there are usually several pre-application meetings held to discuss the project and what is being planned, and to ensure that all required materials are gathered together prior to submission.”
Officials from DPP also declined to comment on the specific allegations made in Revere’s letter due to the ongoing litigation.
“I am not aware of any inappropriate actions by DPP staff and will fully cooperate with any investigation by the Ethics Commission,” George Atta, director of DPP, said in a statement. “I believe that the results of the investigation will show no inappropriate relationships between DPP staff and Haseko.”
Meanwhile, the City Council is considering bills that would amend zoning at Haseko’s Ewa property to make it easier to build a lagoon.
While several Ewa residents support the lagoon concept, a recent City Council Zoning and Planning Committee hearing in Kapolei highlighted the uphill battle that Haseko faces in regaining the community’s trust.
State Rep. Matthew LoPresti, a lead plaintiff in the case against Haseko, said the correspondence between the developer and the city also undermined his trust in government.
“I felt betrayed,” he said. “The City and County government that’s supposed to be protecting the homeowners and consumers was instead working to undermine the promises made to them.”
At the Kapolei hearing, Tanoue described the lagoon project to council members and emphasized it would be “much more sustainable” than adding a marina.
“This change is a much more … exciting way of developing the final portions of the marina community out here in Ocean Pointe,” said Tanoue.
Tanoue’s slip-of-the-tongue reference to the “marina community” is perhaps because the development has been referred to as the “Ewa Marina” for over 20 years. It wasn’t until November 2011 that Haseko announced it was going to build a lagoon instead, prompting a lawsuit in July 2013.
Both before and after the lawsuit was filed, DPP officials worked with Haseko to amend the Ewa Development Plan to ensure the lagoon was a possibility, and strategized on gaining rezoning approval from the City Council.
According to emails obtained through the lawsuit, DPP staffer Bob Stanfield reviewed Haseko’s draft testimony on the Ewa Development Plan in January 2012 before the developer presented it to the city Planning Commission.
Several months later in March 2013, Stanfield sent Fong part of the city’s draft testimony to the City Council to solicit Haseko’s feedback.
“Thank you again, Bob, for inviting my comments on this matter and for your continued support in working with us in such a collaborative fashion,” Fong wrote in her emailed reply.
According to a transcript of her deposition, Fong denied DPP collaborated with Haseko to get the lagoon version of the project approved.
“DPP’s job is not really to collaborate with anyone,” she said, acknowledging that DPP is a regulatory agency that is supposed to be neutral like a judge. “They process permits.”
She later retracted that statement when presented with her email correspondence with Stanfield and said the department “loosely” collaborated with Haseko.
The City Council is considering bills that would amend zoning at Haseko’s Ewa property to make it easier to build a lagoon.
Besides not wanting to talk about Revere’s letter to the Ethics Commission, DPP officials generally declined interviews for this story but did provide emailed statements describing the agency’s policies.
“We do not meet with an applicant to coordinate responses to the Planning Commission or the City Council,” said Atta. “If we do meet prior to a hearing, it’s to address unresolved issues related to the project.”
Atta emphasized that the agency accommodates meeting requests from everyone, both developers and project opponents.
“Applicants with large projects usually have a lot of things in the hopper with us, such as building permit applications, grading applications, etc.,” Atta wrote in a statement. “In some situations, an applicant will ask for regular meetings and we will accommodate them … Essentially, these are coordination meetings with the applicant.”
John Whalen, former director of the Honolulu permitting department, said that in his experience, it would be unusual for the agency to review a developer’s testimony or vice versa.
“I can’t think of any instance where we worked with the applicant to modify testimony,” he said.
But Whalen did note that when he was serving as director, the agency was called the Department of Land Utilization and focused only on permitting, rather than planning.
The addition of planning as a department responsibility may have required the city to work more closely with developers, and Stanfield may have offered to look over Haseko’s testimony to avoid confusion while finalizing the Ewa Development Plan, Whalen said.
Whalen also said monthly meetings with a developer is “a little unusual,” and noted that when he was director, the agency would give advice to small developers who weren’t familiar with the process but larger projects generally had consultants to provide that service.
In his letter to the city Ethics Commission and Council members, Revere said that if the private meetings are allowed, opponents of the project should be notified that they are occurring.
Revere also highlighted insults Haseko officials and consultants made regarding the City Council and its constituents.
In light of the controversy that the project has engendered, Sokugawa’s statement at the end of that August 2013 meeting seems prescient.
“So much is different,” she said. “When you get down to it, there is a whole lot that has changed. But you don’t want to get caught when someone accuses you of it being a whole different project.”
Read the homeowners’ complaint below: