KOLOA, Kauai — Mayor Derek Kawakami has neutralized what threatened to become Kauai’s newest controversy over potential placement of affordable housing in a location to which would-be neighbors objected.

It was one of the shortest political crises in county history and probably a valuable lesson for the new mayor.

In backing down, Kawakami conceded that Kauai County officials failed to anticipate the degree to which some residents of Koloa would object to recommitting to housing a vacant 20-acre parcel within the Club at Kukuiula luxury housing development that was originally to have been a regional park.

But the flap also underscored the degree to which not-in-my-backyard sentiments can be quickly mobilized into a powerful political force.

Kauai already has 57 county park facilities covering more than 487 acres. According to County Managing Director Mike Dahilig, that’s about four times as many parks as the national average for counties. Like every jurisdiction in the state, Kauai is also desperately short of housing — especially that which can be affordable as rentals for ordinary residents.

The latest controversy has its origins nearly 20 years ago when the 1,012-acre Club at Kukuiula development was first planned by Alexander & Baldwin, the large statewide landowner, and other partners. In 2004, the development plan was approved by the county, which imposed several conditions, including building an access road and construction of the park — with the proviso that A&B would be permanently responsible for paying to maintain it.

Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami during joint WAM FInance Meeting.
Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami staved off a community crisis when he backed down on exchanging park land for a housing project. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Today, the exclusive Kukuiula development includes dozens of ultra luxury homes and an exclusive shopping center, but the park was never constructed. A&B did not respond to questions about when the facility may be built.

When Kawakami was elected in 2018, his platform included a commitment to search for parcels of land the county already owned that could be used as housing sites. His rationale was that taking the land cost factor out of a project would slash the price of any eventual housing. Dahilig said the county has an informal list of at least a half dozen potential county-owned parcels that could be turned into housing.

When and if the Kukuiula park is ever built, it would be dedicated to the county and become a county facility, even though A&B would be on the hook for maintenance costs.

Less than a month ago, however, the county Planning Department proposed repurposing of the Kukuiula park for future housing, though no concrete plans currently exist for such a development.

About two weeks ago, according to community activist Ted Blake, residents of Koloa neighborhoods surrounding the proposed park site received notices that the county intended to ask the Planning Commission to formally rezone the park space for high-density housing sufficient to build as many as 400 units.

Cries of outrage were almost immediate and Blake and others encouraged residents to turn out for a Planning Commission meeting earlier this month. Opponents of the housing project packed the room and 17 of them testified against the project. No one appeared to testify in favor.

“It was obviously not the time to force (this project) down the throat.” — Kauai County Managing Director Mike Dahilig

Dahilig said the county had informed A&B of its intention to propose rezoning of the park space and that the developer did not object, but the idea was not A&B’s.

However, in a statement, A&B said: “This 20-acre parcel is designated for a park and we stand ready to make it available to the County for whatever use and timing is deemed best by the County and the community. Kukui’ula has honored  its commitments to the County, across changing administrations, since its beginning in 2004.”

One resident, Ryan Buhk, acknowledged in his testimony that “the county’s need for affordable housing is understandable,” but he and other witnesses objected to what they perceived as letting A&B off the hook for a commitment to build a park.

“Allowing any developer to circumvent contractually promised conditions will not be received well,” he said.

“County, enforce the conditions that were placed upon Kukuiula. That includes their promise to build the regional park.”

“It’s a new housing mantra,” Dahilig said of the community opposition. “It was obviously not the time to force (this project) down the throat.”

In a letter to the Planning Commission, Blake charged that “the county today wants to rezone our regional park for an affordable housing project and take it away from Koloa completely.

“While affordable housing is an island and county problem, we are asked to sacrifice (a major project) for a major impact brought upon our community. There has been no discussion of the developer or a proposition for another site location in Koloa with the same amenities they want to take.”

It took only a couple of days for Kawakami to realize that the exchange of the park land for the proposed affordable housing had overstepped what the community would tolerate.

“As I have had the privilege of being Kauai’s Mayor over the past months, the most prevalent plea for help I receive from people I meet is the need to find housing for our local families,” Kawakami said in a statement. “Our people are in a housing crisis, and I felt it my duty to use whatever means we can to put our next generations on the land.

“However, after last Tuesday’s Planning Commission meeting, it was clear from the testimony that notwithstanding the crisis, the community cost to build this particular housing project was too much. It was clear that this proposal would not yield housing at the pace the public expects, and we all mutually agreed it was best to move on.”

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