A Windward Oahu condominium complex is poised to uproot nearly two acres of trees on its sloping property, part of what it describes as a stabilization project to help guard nearby Kaneohe Bay from heavy soil runoff.

However, some neighbors and residents within the complex fear that the multimillion-dollar project might accomplish the opposite. And they see a different motive — improving ocean views.

The plans at Puu Alii, which are still under city review, call for crews to dig at least 2 feet into the ground to remove tree-root systems. If that occurs, it will take decades to grow the replacement trees needed to hold back the soil, some residents say.

In the meantime, homes downslope of the condo complex’s Pohakea Point development and the fragile marine ecosystem just beyond will be vulnerable to soil runoff, they add.

Lilipuna Road near Konane Place condominiums with trees that border the roadway Kaneohe
Nearly two acres of trees would be removed above Lilipuna Road at the Puu Alii condominium complex buildings, part of a slope stabilization plan that’s moving ahead. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Kaneohe Bay is known to endure heavy runoff in rain storms, and the state’s Clean Water Branch lists it as “impaired” for its turbidity levels.

“Right now we’ve got a small soil runoff issue. They’re going to turn this thing into a full-blown major issue,” said Dave Swann, a longtime Puu Alii resident.

Further, Swann, who served on the board of the Puu Alii Community Association for 15 years, said he believes the association’s goal is to tear down the tree canopy blocking views of the bay for many Puu Alii residents. While on the board, Swann said he often pushed back against association members advocating for better views.

The lush canopy that surrounds the buildings and how best to maintain it has been a source of contention over the years, with some association members pressing to cut down trees blocking their views.

In 2019, the city sent a notice of violation to the association after it cut down trees that were supposed to be protected, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. In May, the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting advised that “there shall not be areas without trees” after the association had included other types of ground-cover in some areas.

Swann said he was ousted from the board in 2019 and described himself as a “pariah” to its current members. “None of us can believe that the city and county are leaning toward letting them do this,” he added.

To be sure, Puu Alii’s slope stabilization plans call for lining the slope between Lilipuna Road and Konane Place with anti-erosion devices, including matting, mesh, earth anchors, soil nails and “improved landscaping and vegetation.”

Shawn Scott, president of the Puu Alii Community Association board, forwarded inquiries about the project to the association’s legal counsel, Christopher Goodwin.

In an emailed statement, Goodwin said that the association “has applied for all government required permits and has retained qualified professionals to design and perform these necessary slope stabilization measures” and noted that they’re in “strict compliance” with the appropriate government agencies.

puu alii condos map lilipuna

Goodwin declined to be interviewed about the resistance to Puu Alii’s plans or how the project of removing trees would lead to less runoff. Association board members would not be made available for interviews either, he said.

The project has already received the necessary state permit for its plan to contain runoff during construction. However, the permit doesn’t cover the drainage plan for the project itself, according to Darryl Lum, a permit section supervisor with the state health department’s Clean Water Branch.

Instead, it falls to DPP to review the proposed grading for what the plans call the “Konane Slope.” DPP is still awaiting final plans from the Puu Alii association, DPP spokesman Curtis Lum said Tuesday.

In a letter Tuesday, DPP Deputy Director Eugene Takahashi told Swann that the department may issue a grading permit for the project if “the proposed work meets the city’s proposed drainage and engineering standards and does not put public health, safety and welfare into question.”

The city’s Department of Facility Maintenance installed a filter fence below the slope in 2018 to help control soil runoff “but a permanent solution is needed for slope stabilization,” Takahashi’s letter added. 

Puu Alii had originally planned to start the project in January. Each of the complex’s 540 units was assessed $7,800 for the work, according to Swann.

Juliana Fanning, who’s lived at the bottom of the slope since the 1980s, said the area does not have a runoff problem. The only incident of heavy runoff she could recall happened around the time the city facilities maintenance department installed the fence after the association removed some trees.

She called Puu Alii’s project “a really radical plan.” The 100-plus trees that the condo association aims to uproot have been there at least 60 years, she said.

To remove them would be “a total destabilization. Me and my neighbors are really worried about harming our properties. What is the need? What’s the justification?” Fanning said. “There’s no evidence that you need to uproot and dig up and grub.”

Fanning said she wished there had been a public hearing on the project when it was proposed so that more of her neighbors could have heard about it and weighed in.

“I’m still trying to build the coconut wireless,” she said.

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