The developer of a proposed housing complex in Enchanted Lake is meeting a tidal wave of opposition from local residents who say it is being built on a wetland.

They say that site, in an area historically known as Kaelepulu Pond, has always been awash in water and is not appropriate for development.

“It’s so obviously a wetland; it is standing water four to six months a year,” says Enchanted Lake resident Hugo De Vries, who owns an adjacent private 13-acre wetland and nature preserve that serves as a haven for endangered Hawaiian waterbirds.

In Hawaiian, the name Kaelepulu means a body of water covered with vegetation, said Kuike Kamakea-Ohelo, a Waimanalo resident, who added that Hawaiians have known it as a wetland for 800 years.

But in 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees the nation’s waterways, gave the project a green light, saying only a small portion of the site requires protection under federal law. Officials said that only 1,050 square feet of the 5-acre parcel, or less than 1%, fits the definition of a wetland.

The land, located at Akumu Street, was zoned R-5 in the 1990s, giving the property owner the right to build. The California-based developer, Lacus LLC, bought the land in 2017. The firm is planning a 28-unit cluster development with a retention pond to prevent drainage into Enchanted Lake.

Under law, no further approval by elected officials is necessary.

Neighbors say this field is a wetland, but officials say it isn't.

This site at the end of Akumu Road in Enchanted Lake has been proposed for a 28-unit housing development.

Kirstin Downey

The project has been reviewed by the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting. City officials recommended some design changes and required the developer to take the plan to the Kailua Neighborhood Board for review, as well as submit the minutes of the meeting so city officials could see how it had been received.

The developer’s project team in Hawaii reached out quickly to the Kailua board and has met with members of the board five times since then, including three meetings with the board’s Planning, Zoning and Environment Committee and twice in larger public meetings.

The response from Kailua residents has been overwhelmingly negative.

“It’s kind of a symbol, a symbol of the country, and a cry to stop all this development because there has been enough,” said Paul Brennan, president of the Kailua Historical Society.

This wetland is adjacent to the controversial proposed housing development.

The proposed development would be next door to a wetland in an area known as Kaelepulu Pond. In Hawaiian, kaelepulu means water covered with vegetation.

Kirstin Downey

The company has since made many changes in the plan to try to win over residents. The parcel is big enough to contain 55 units of housing. The developer originally asked the city for 40 two-story single-family homes, but reduced the number of units, in steps, to 28. The company changed the configuration of the complex to protect neighbors’ views and increased the number of guest parking spaces from 12 to 18.

It also added a scenic retention pond that will address drainage concerns and provide some wildlife habitat, said Jason Stallsmith, the Hawaii-based representative for the developer.

“We were listening to community feedback,” Stallsmith said.

Stallsmith said the Army Corps of Engineers and the city have both determined the land to be developable, and that neighbors are mired in the past, based on what the area used to be historically. Over the years, the terrain has changed, he said.

“They want to think it is a wetland, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s not designated.”

About a hundred people showed up at a recent special meeting of the Kailua Neighborhood Board, and all spoke in opposition to the project. Many questioned why the land is no longer considered a wetland and raised questions about potential environmental damage.

Rethinking History

The community of Enchanted Lake was created through what many people now view as a questionable political process that, while it provided homes to thousands of people, also degraded the environment. Critics see this development as another blow.

Until the 1950s, Kaelepulu Pond was a prolific fishery that fed people throughout Oahu, according to local historians.

The pond covered nearly 190 acres, with an additional marsh of about 90 acres, according to a history compiled by the Enchanted Lake Residents Association. In the 1880s, it belonged to Hawaiian Princess Ruth Keelikolani, who leased lands around the pond to rice farmers.

By the 1950s it was owned by the Bishop Trust, which formed a joint venture with a developer from Kauai named Joseph Pao, who developed the 700 acres in and around Kaelupulu Pond for the Enchanted Lake residential housing development.

Pao enjoyed the support of many Honolulu politicians.

He was a close personal friend of Honolulu Mayor Neal S. Blaisdell. Pao’s partners in the Enchanted Lake project included Allen R. Hawkins, a state judge and city prosecutor; Mitsuyuki Kido, who had served as state legislator and on the Honolulu Board of Supervisors, Anthony Rutledge of the Hawaii Teamsters and Harold Lewis, financial secretary of the Operating Engineers Local 3, according to “Land and Power in Hawaii,” a 1990 book that uncovered the dense thicket of financial links between Hawaii’s politicians and officials and real estate development in the state.

Pao “was very politically connected and he was able to use his influence with political movers and shakers, all able to get very involved with Bishop Estate, to develop the whole Kaelepulu area,” said Brennan, the Kailua historian.

At the same time, another developer, Kaneohe Ranch, was busily advertising its suburban residential complexes to Honolulu residents through “almost daily newspapers articles” extolling the virtues of Kailua living, Brennan said.

Commuters with jobs downtown bought houses on the Windward side and began making the daily trek over the Pali Highway, which was completed in the early 1960s.

“Pao was able to ride the coattails of the boom Kaneohe Ranch had already begun,” Brennan said. “It was obviously very successful.”

No environmental assessments were done in those days, and there were no requirements for archaeological assessments, Brennan recalled.

Soil from Pao’s construction projects on the surrounding hillsides was used to fill in parts of the pond and build the houses at Enchanted Lake, local residents recalled. Algae blooms and fish kills soon followed, as dirt and pollutants washed into the waters.

“The once clear pond that had supported fisheries and oyster beds became increasingly polluted and filled with silt,” according to the book “Kailua,” published in 2009 by the Kailua Historical Society.

Enchanted Lake, administered by the Enchanted Lake Residents Association, now includes about 95 acres of water, wetlands and small islands, or about only a third of what it once was. The waterway connects to Kailua Beach Park, ending at Buzz’s Restaurant. There aren’t many fish left in the lake, and the association advises residents not to eat them if they catch them.

“Eating anything taken from the lake is at your own risk and is contrary to the lake catch and release policy,” the association says on its website. “WARNING! Whether fishing, crabbing or oystering, keep in mind that the Lake is not routinely tested for pollution and the coliform count has been known to exceed public health standards, particularly after heavy rains.”

The proposed project would be located about 50 feet from the Kaelepulu wetland system, according to city officials, but is not wetland itself.

The development parcel consists of a low-lying, verdant field crowned with a large monkeypod tree, a striking contrast to the middle-class residential area that surrounds it. On a recent sunny summer day, no standing water was visible, but local residents say the water rises seasonally.

The property is adjacent to the wetland owned by the De Vries family, who cross a small channel of water on a raft to visit it from their home.

De Vries said construction projects are gradually destroying what remains of the wetlands in the area. When projects are constructed uphill from Enchanted Lake, they are first deforested, and then when it rains, the soil washes down into the water below, turning the clear water in the wetland into brown sludge.

Hugo De Vries fears that construction next door to this wetland will hurt the environment.

The neighborhood where the proposed project is being built is so marshy that Hugo De Vries, who lives next door, uses a raft to visit the site.

Kirstin Downey

“It’s slowly being filled in by siltation from developers,” De Vries said.

He said that city and state officials do little to help mitigate environmental injury.

“Every time we complain to the Environmental Protection Agency or the Department of Health’s Clean Water Branch, they shrug,” De Vries said. “Sometimes they say they are too busy.”

De Vries said the project’s consultants said they would bring in 18,000 cubic yards of fill to level off the site, and he said he believed some of it would run off into the area’s wetlands and waterways.

Stallsmith said that the plan calls for adding 4 1/2 to 5 feet of soil on part of the site, but he said the developer plans to do the work responsibly to minimize the risk of environmental damage.

At the meeting last week, many residents spoke wistfully of a time when the water in the area was less polluted and water levels were higher. Several said there was used to be seahorses in the water of Kaelepulu Pond but it is very rare to see them now.

One woman in the audience called out a question to Honolulu City Council Chairman Ikaika Anderson, asking him if he remembered how wet the area used to be, back when he was growing up there.

Anderson, who had been sitting on the side of the room during the three-hour public meeting, saying nothing, simply nodded in agreement.

Finally, asked to speak, Anderson said that people who had concerns about the project should contact Kathy Sokugawa, acting director of the city’s planning department, who he said has the final say.

“Share your manao,” he said, using the Hawaiian word for thoughts and prayers.

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