The cost of a $3.2 million landslide mitigation project in Mililani is being placed on the backs of residents — many of whom don’t live near the two eroding hillsides in question.
The hazard areas are at the back of Wikao Street on land owned by the Launani Valley Community Association, which is forcing about 800 of its residents to come up with $3,902 apiece by Jan. 1.
If they don’t pay, residents of the community next to Mililani Tech Park risk late fees and legal action by the association.
The extra payment, which is in addition to quarterly fees of about $150, is a burden for some Launani Valley residents.
Just ask Ashley Trotter, a teacher whose husband is a freelance wedding photographer. The couple have a young child with one more on the way, and Trotter says the situation is financially stressful.
“Who has that money just lying around?” she said.
Trotter said that she and her husband put money into their savings, but the fees would cut into that, especially around the holiday season.
“It kind of sucks,” she said. “It would rearrange what we were doing. It does add up.”
The community association sent its members ballots in March to vote on financing the landslide project with a loan that would have been paid off by raising fees by about $30 or $40 a month, according to Tom Strout, president of the the Launani Valley Community Association Board of Directors.
Trotter says she voted for the loan option along with about 288 other community members — the majority of those who voted. But the association’s board of directors required 66 percent of the neighborhood’s 833 homes to approve the loan.
Almost half of the residents didn’t vote.
“The Board of Directors had no choice but to approve a Special Assessment to fund the mudslide remediation project located behind Woodcreek Crossing,” reads an Aug. 31 letter to residents from the board.
Other Launani Valley residents say that the community association blindsided them with the special assessment.
LeeAnn Tuttle said it wasn’t clear exactly what they were voting on when the association sent residents ballots in March. She said a June meeting held by the community association on the project did little to clarify the situation.
“It was a mess because the (association’s) lawyer wasn’t there,” Tuttle said. “And we had a lot of legal questions.”
She said residents didn’t understand that if the loan wasn’t approved, they would have to pay for the project anyway.
And Tuttle doesn’t think it’s fair for all residents to have to pay for a project that doesn’t benefit everyone.
“If a tree fell on our building, I wouldn’t expect Woodcreek to put up the bill,” she said.
At least one resident who lives in a threatened home below one of the the eroding hillsides also opposes the assessments for the project.
“I think it’s unreasonable since it’s such a large sum and it’s right before the holidays,” said Susie Gardner, a resident below Slope No. 1. “Especially with not much warning.”
Some of her neighbors share Gardner’s sentiments, saying they are relieved the hillside is being fixed, but don’t think it should be at their expense.
Gardner said she and her husband are faced with total assessments of nearly $8,000, since they also own property at the front of the valley. They both voted to finance the project with a loan.
The hillsides in question are part of a 149-acre parcel of land owned by the community association that surrounds Launani Valley’s six neighborhoods, according to property records.
The association is responsible for the maintenance of all property in Launani Valley, according to its articles of incorporation. Likewise, any homeowner in the valley is also a member of the association, according to the bylaws.
The board can collect additional maintenance fees if the current fees are insufficient to pay for a needed project, according to the bylaws. It just needs to pass a fee by majority vote and then notify each resident.
Gardner and other residents who live below the eroding hillsides say they questioned their real estate agents about landslide hazards before they moved in, but the agents said they didn’t know about any danger.
Asked if homeowners had signed papers stating that they understood the landslide risks, Strout said he doesn’t have an answer.
“I don’t have factual proof,” he said. “I heard that there was, and I heard that there wasn’t.”
Strout said that the loan would have been a better option because it would have cost residents less upfront and would have financed the project sooner.
The board is working with its attorneys to see if it can recover the cost of the project from the original developer of the property, it said in an emailed statement to Civil Beat. But Strout said it’s not yet clear who that developer would be.
Strout says that the Board of Directors can’t delay the mitigation project, because damage to homes could make the community association vulnerable to lawsuits.
“What if another heavy rainfall happens and we lose more than just the few homes we’re worried about?” Strout said. “If we don’t do anything and something happens in the future, it’s going to cost a lot more than right now.”
Residents have collected more than 200 signatures on a petition posted on the website Nextdoor.com in an attempt to force the board to reconsider how the project is financed, Gardner said. If the petition gets signatures from people representing 208 of the homes, or 25 percent, it would force Strout to call a special meeting of the Board of Directors, according to the bylaws.
A geotechnical report by JPB Engineering describes the 65-foot hills cut at about 56 degrees as eroded and weathered.
“We’re praying every time it rains,” Gardner said.
In fact, the community association board left notices on residents’ doors during Tropical Storm Olivia advising them to evacuate to a hotel that the association would pay for, Gardner said.
“But I couldn’t leave,” she said. “I’ve got my dog.”
Steve Martel, a geology professor at the University of Hawaii, says many variables could affect weakened hillsides.
These two hillsides are made of weathered rock called saprolite, which Martel says tends to be weaker than solid rock.
Heavy rains from storms could be one cause of erosion; but Martel says that depends on the nature of the rain.
“The intensity of the rain, the duration of the rain and what’s happening before the rain, all that matters,” Martel said.
That the slopes were cut to make way for homes could also weaken a hillside, he said. Because of all the variables, Martel says its hard to pinpoint what caused erosion in Launani Valley.
The $3.2 million would go toward placing a mesh system over the hillsides to hold back potential rockfalls or landslides. The geotechnical report also recommends that rods with a minimum length of 15 feet be drilled into the hill to hold the mesh in place.
An alternative would have been to coat each slope with a concrete face at a cost of about $2.2 million, according to a report by Trinity ERD, a building consultant contracted by the community association.
The consultant said the mesh system, while more expensive, would also be more effective in holding back the slopes.
Strout doesn’t know how long the hills have been a problem, but says they were encroaching on properties before he joined the board three years ago.
He said there’s been at least three attempts to mitigate landslides on Wikao Street that he described as inadequate.
“I’m sorry we’re going through this again. I wish this was taken care of years ago,” he said. “But we’ve got to move on and get it taken care of.”
Here are the Launani Valley Community Association bylaws.
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