Excavation on a hill behind Aina Haina Elementary School has nearby residents worried.
More than a decade ago, they came out in force to fight a proposed apartment complex on the land in 2006. Now, the landowner, Kent Untermann, has a new plan to instead build several single-family homes on the property.
The contentious three-acre property sits mauka of Aina Haina Elementary School under a steep ridge. More than half the property is taken up by a cliff face. The other half is a slope filled with dirt and trees that have already been dug up, worrying residents over the possibility of a mudslide after a heavy downpour.
Residents are also concerned about the availability of parking and excavation that would ruin the hillside view.
Untermann, owner of Pictures Plus, initially wanted to build a 16-unit apartment style complex on the parcel in 2006. The city Department of Planning and Permitting rejected Untermann’s application for a building permit after more than 90 residents testified to the neighborhood board against the development.
“The DPP did not support the cluster housing project, as presented, because of the steep topography of the site, the amount of excessive development proposed over slopes exceeding 40 percent, and the proposed grading (cut and fill), which was significant,” Henry Eng, then DPP director, wrote in the 2006 rejection letter.
Untermann’s current building permits and plans call for an approximately 6,000 square-foot home tucked in the corner of the property on a relatively gentle slope. He said that he and his wife are “downsizing” from their current residence in Hawaii Loa Ridge and will move onto the property once their home is complete.
Residents are worried about what else Untermann might build on the property. Property documents show that the parcel is currently divided into eight separate areas that range in size from 7,000 to 51,000 square feet.
In 2015, Untermann filed for a condominium property regime, or CPR, which would allow him to build more homes, then sell or rent them to other homeowners or tenants. Untermann doesn’t have any concrete plans for building more houses just yet. He said the parcel could allow for up to 18 homes, but he won’t build that many.
Neighborhood boards can make recommendations to approve or disapprove a new subdivision. However, a CPR would allow a landowner to bypass a presentation to the neighborhood board.
At a June neighborhood board meeting, Martin Mori, a member of the 17-person Kuliouou-Kalani Iki Neighborhood Board, outlined objections to the development of the parcel, which included clearing of the hillside and drainage concerns.
Those were the same reasons DPP rejected the initial application for the 16 unit cluster in 2006.
“[This parcel] should have never been zoned for residential in the first place,” Mori said. “I have to wonder, and question DPP, how this got approved now when all this got noted.”
Untermann said he is happy to meet with any of the residents to talk about his current plans, but no one on the neighborhood board contacted him before they talked with the media. Only one homeowner — an engineer with a rat problem that was solved when the digging started — reached out to him, he said.
“It’s been a really frustrating process. People just want to run around and not talk to us,” Untermann said. “It’s been one of the worst experiences. How I’ve been treated in this neighborhood is disconcerting.”
New buildings aren’t the residents only concerns. The entire Aina Haina and Kuliouou area was identified by the U.S. Geological Survey as a landslide prone area in the 1990s. Most of the homes there were built in the 1950s and 1960s.
Slides have been a problem in this area for years. In 2007, the Aina Haina Community Association opposed development at the end of Hao street. Residents, the association and even DPP cited flood concerns and landslides in the area.
The two issues facing residents — more homes and mudslides — are interconnected, says Mori.
When asked about those concerns, Untermann said “there’s no difference between what we’re going to do, and what’s been there for 50 years.”
Many hillsides in this area, specifically at the bottom of large hills or cliffs, collect deposits of soils called vertisols, which often shift with enough rainfall. Landslides, rockfalls and boulders also present a hazard in the area, according to community board documents.
A 2006 engineering report found that Unterman’s land should be able to support a residence assuming the correct measures are taken. These include installing retaining walls, leveling the slope and excavating rocks.
Untermann said he wouldn’t develop the upper half of the property because it’s too steep. He also believes construction will eventually improve water drainage in the area.
The property line borders Aina Haina Elementary School. In 2012, the neighborhood board and the school’s community council opposed the city’s attempt to sell a small piece of land between the two properties, citing rockfall and landslide hazards if heavy excavation were to occur in the area. The parcel is now part of Aina Haina Elementary School’s property.
Aina Haina Elementary School Principal Brendan Burns said that he had not been informed about the new project and would have to look into it.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell