KEALIA, Kauai — A clear-cut area along a county multiuse path that runs from near Lihue to this east side community has given rise to a controversy over the motives behind a drastic brush clearance.

Critics contend the clearing was done to improve the view of a luxury home under construction.

The property owner insists that he was not alone in urging the brush be cleared and that the request was unrelated to protecting the view from his massive new house.

But the showdown has brought back to prominence the broadly held belief that wealthy land owners are allowed to have their way with the land.

The controversy has also embarrassed the Kauai County Parks and Recreation Department, which was forced to admit that it inappropriately permitted the clearance and will have to undertake some re-landscaping to make up for what was destroyed.

The situation is further complicated by a 2002 agreement between the county and the Kealia Kai luxury homesite development, in which the development gave the county control over several miles of shoreline for use as park land. The agreement includes a provision that could be construed to mean the Kealia Kai Homeowners Association can legally clear brush.

Workers clear debris from tree cutting along a multiuse path near the Kealia Kai community on Kauai. Gina Lobaco

The dispute flared originally in early November when a local resident wrote a letter to The Garden Island, Kauai’s daily newspaper, complaining that a short section of brush that included tall pine and ironwood trees, immediately below the large house under construction on Kapoli Street, had essentially been leveled.

Evidence of the cutting is unmistakable and includes some trees whose stumps were as much as a foot in diameter. Tree trunks, limbs, pine needles and debris are everywhere at the site.

Local residents quickly joined in accusing the property owner, Warren Owens, of using the brush clearance project as an excuse to improve the view from the hillside home he is building. Owens’ primary address is in Santa Ana, California.

A resident of Kealia Kai says the controversial tree clearing in front of the development wasn’t done to improve his view. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2019

He is on the board of the Kealia Kai Homeowners Association, according to the organization’s website.

“We were told that a private homeowner on the hill had ordered the cuttings to improve his view,” said Alice Ibarra.

She and her husband, Robert, walk the path Monday through Friday most weeks. “His view was already spectacular so it is hard for us to comprehend the selfishness that allowed him to destroy public resources for an improved view,” she said.

Unsurprisingly, Owens has a very different perspective on what happened.

He told Civil Beat that the eventually cleared area had become severely overgrown and that homeless people had established an encampment there.

When a reporter visited the area last week, there was clear evidence of at least one apparently abandoned camp site.

Dozens of trees — some quite large — had obviously been felled. Limbs and small branches were strewn over the ground where they had fallen.

Owens said he and “a group of us” complained to the county, arguing that the area in question had become unsightly and was attracting illegal camping, but the county, in turn, “asked us to clean it up, so it was like a volunteer thing.”

He said there had been a brush fire in the area last year that the Kauai County Fire Department had trouble reaching.

Owens noted that the Kealia Kai development had deeded the land to the county many years ago, which county records appear to support.

Who Was Responsible?

The 2002 agreement conveyed to the county a large amount of land makai of what eventually became the multiuse path. The path, which serves bicyclists, runners and pedestrians is several miles long, and much of it is wild, wooded growth.

A cyclist passes the tree stumps left behind after a controversial brush clearance. Some critics say it was done improperly to benefit the view of a luxury home under construction in the background. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2019

By contrast, the area that was cut after Owens and others made their request is less than 200 yards long. Owens said concern over preserving or improving the view from his property was not what motivated his complaint to the county.

The area is also within a special management area, designated as reserved for park use. Under the 2002 agreement, the Kealia Kai development, which is a gated community, retained some legal authority to maintain the park land in question.

However, language in the agreement also appears to make Kealia Kai responsible for “any act of omission” by its “employees, representatives and contractors” if they engage in inappropriate “weeding, mowing, landscaping and maintenance.”

The county parks department has primary maintenance responsibility.

By the end of last week, the situation had devolved into stalemate, with the Kauai Parks and Recreation Department insisting that the incident actually grew out of a misunderstanding of what the Kealia Kai property owners intended to do.

“It was our understanding that the work would include topping off of trees and grass cutting, and the owner was granted permission,” said Wally Rezentes Jr., deputy director of parks and recreation.

“It was intended to be an example of a helpful public-private partnership,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the actual scope of work was far beyond what parks had anticipated. However, we are taking full responsibility for what occurred, as we realized that we did not properly communicate our requirements.”

Rezentes said the parks department later concluded that by acquiescing to the trimming, it may have violated terms of the Special Management Area agreement in question.

He said the planning department might have been within its rights if it had issued the Kauai Parks and Recreation Department a citation for allowing what occurred, “as they would any other landowner.”

Kauai tree clearing
Kauai officials acknowledge that their approval of the cutting by property owners was likely a result of misinterpreting the rules. Courtesy: Gina Lobato

But, he added, “it doesn’t necessarily make sense for one county agency to (cite) another, so we are also considering alternate penalties, such as remediation of the area.

“There has also been extensive follow-up with the landowner to ensure his understanding of these requirements as well, and to make it clear that such a project cannot and will not happen again.”

That wasn’t enough for Alexis Erum, another resident who found the entire episode perplexing and frustrating.

She contended that the area in question was one of the few in that particular area of the path where there were enough trees to create shade for users.

“I hope the island can have a larger discussion about what justice for the community and for the environment should look like in circumstances like this, where one person improves their multimillion dollar residence at the cost of the community, animal species and the aina,” she said.

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