Soon after luxury hotels exploded in South Maui, an investor unveiled a new plan: a development of up to 2,200 homes on 670 acres at the end of Piilani Highway, a project promised to usher in a “greater sense of community” to the resort area of Wailea.

maui locator badge

It was then called Wailea 670. Along with the homes, there’d be 400 or so “resort lodges,” two 18-hole golf courses, commercial space and parks. In a 1988 environmental review, the investor’s consultant argued the land was ready for building, saying the soil wasn’t good for agriculture, there “would be no impacts on archaeological or historical resources” because there wasn’t anything of “significance” and many of the plants were “weedy.” If anything, the consultant wrote, development would “create a more diverse set of living spaces which would likely benefit species like plover, myna and sparrow.”

But even then, some Maui residents questioned whether the project would do enough to deal with the traffic it brought and provide houses that local residents could afford. As the decades passed, the opposition grew. The property kept changing hands between various investors, and the plans changed, too. Eventually, the project’s representatives recognized the property was home to remnants of ancient Hawaiian villages and endangered wildlife habitats, including a wiliwili forest with trees thought to be hundreds of years old. The idea that there were no significant historical sites, as one of the previous owners claimed years before, was entirely untrue.

By 2007, the property’s current owners sought the next major phase of approval from the county to lay the groundwork that would change zoning and allow the project to be built. After a hotly contested debate, council members agreed to move forward, but only if the property owner provided 700 affordable housing units — half of the 1,400 homes it at that point planned to build.

“I’m going to be keeping an eye out for what happens, and I think we need to hold people’s feet to the fire,” council member Gladys Baisa said during a meeting at the time. “If you say you’re going to do this, you better do it. And I think it’s our job to make sure it gets done.”

That was almost 15 years ago. And yet, the debate has continued, and the development is still years away from breaking ground.

The property’s representatives are now seeking permission to move onto the next step in the development process, once again drawing pushback from community groups. Earlier this week, their attorneys spent eight hours cross-examining planning officials and development consultants while arguing whether the project was — or wasn’t — delivering on promises it made in the past.

Wailea in south Maui
The Honuaula development is planned for the land on the mauka side of Piilani Highway, above Wailea. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Today, the development — now called Honuaula — is smaller than investors previously planned, calling for about 1,150 new housing units, of which 288 are slated to be rented or sold at affordable rates set by the government. A golf course isn’t on the books anymore. And after facing pressure from the community over the last decade, the project now sets aside roughly 40% of the property for open space — roughly 90 acres for parks and 200 acres to preserve delicate natural ecosystems and archeological sites.

The Maui Planning Commission is now tasked with deciding whether to approve the site plan; it’s the last chance for “discretionary approval,” meaning that appointed officials will use their own judgment to make the decision, and the public has a chance to weigh in, before county staff decide whether it can be subdivided.

The discussions are far from over, even after Tuesday’s full-day hearing. An attorney for two community groups — Maui Tomorrow, a nonprofit that focuses on environmental protection and Ho‘oponopono O Makena, which represents residents whose ancestral lands are in South Maui — is arguing that the investors aren’t following through with previous plans calling for hundreds more affordable housing units and a golf course, which they say will help with drainage in an area increasingly facing flash flooding.

They’ve also taken issue with the planning process itself, drawing attention to documents that showed  representatives for the developer working with county staff to put together a government report that tells the planning commission whether to approve the project — a practice that county officials say is “common practice.”

“We think this kind of shows what’s been going on this whole time where the developer and the staff or the department itself had been kind of working in cahoots to get this project passed as quickly as possible,” said Ryan Hurley, the groups’ attorney.

A screenshot of the proposed development plan.
A screenshot of the proposed site plan that was presented during the contested case hearing on Tuesday. Screenshot

The investors’ attorney, however, accused the community groups of trying to stall progress. During this week’s hearing, Cal Chipchase, attorney for Honuaula Partners, argued the development plans meet all the necessary requirements, bringing forward project consultants to speak about how they’ve gone above and beyond to preserve environmental, historical and cultural resources. And the way the project’s representatives worked with planning officials, he said, is normal.

“They either don’t know that’s the process, or they don’t care,” said Chipchase. “And they just want to say anything to delay these proceedings.”

For those who’ve watched the debate unfold in recent decades, the situation today is all too familiar. After more than 35 years, a few different property owners and seven mayors, the fight over Honuaula is still as vicious as ever.

It remains as one of the longest running development processes in Maui County. From the investor’s point of view, the situation could be blamed on years of legal fights with community groups who don’t want to see the land developed. But for community members fighting against it, this is the latest instance of a string of broken promises, with hundreds of years of Hawaiian history and native wildlife at stake if promises aren’t upheld.

A Breach Of Trust?

In 2007, a group of Maui County Council members tasked with weighing how land is used met more than two dozen times to discuss the development. Discussions were heated. But eventually, they set 30 conditions for the development to proceed. Among them: Before construction could start, the developer needed to extend the end of Piilani Highway from two to four lanes to accommodate the future boom of traffic and build 250 affordable housing units at another property the same investor was involved with in Kihei, in addition to the 450 planned on the site — for a total of 700 affordable housing units.

“We’re looking at 700 affordables, the land for police, and fire station, and parks,” council member Mike Molina, who’s currently serving on the council, said during a 2007 meeting that moved the project forward. “So be aware, all of the other developers and applicants out there: You got something big, you’re gonna go through a long and arduous process.”

Mayor Michael Victorino, then a freshman council member, served on the committee at the time, too.

“If I’m not here,” Victorino told his colleagues, “I hope that the record will show that I said, ‘Please do not change the conditions we put forward.’”

1988

One of the property’s former owners proposed Wailea 670: a development of up to 2,200 residences, a resort lodge, two 18-hole golf courses and commercial space on 670 acres.

1990s

The property garnered a number of land use approvals, including amending South Maui’s community plan to include the project and changing the state land use from agriculture to urban.

2000

The property had a new owner, who proposed a smaller project of 1,400 homes. The project's name changed from Wailea 670 to Honuaula.

2008

The Maui County Council took a step in approving the project and the zoning change it needed to move forward.

2012

Two community groups, the Sierra Club and Maui Unite, sued to challenge the development’s survey outlining its potential environmental and archaeological impacts.

2016

Honuaula Partners and the community groups reached a settlement that called for the developer to protect more than 160 acres of ancient Hawaiian villages and endangered wildlife.

2022

Honuaula Partners is currently seeking approval for the next phase in the planning process, a move that's been opposed by community groups.

But things have changed since then. Maui County now only requires 25% — not 50% — of new housing units to be reserved at affordable rates, which is why the project’s representative says they can build less than what was planned almost 15 years ago.

And now it’s the Maui Planning Commission tasked with weighing whether the current development plans satisfy all those requirements, and if it should pave the way for the developer to subdivide the land and plan out where houses will go. The planning commission is a group made up of volunteers responsible for making development decisions that guide county staff and elected officials. They meet twice monthly, sometimes reviewing plans that are accompanied with thousands of pages of documents.

Earlier this week, the community groups opposing the Honuaula development took issue with one of the most important documents relating to the project — the county planning department’s staff report, which suggests whether the project should move forward. Emails showed that the development’s planner worked with the county’s planner to provide text that would serve as the basis for the county’s report.

“It’s a breach of trust,” said Albert Perez, executive director of Maui Tomorrow.

The county, however, said that it’s normal for its planners to take language straight from developer’s plans. Michele McLean, the county planning director, said that ever since her department has used computers, word processors and emails, staff have pulled factual information from documents provided by developers.

“There’s no point in us retyping all of that,” McLean said. “So we get that electronically and … cut and paste that into our staff reports.”

In the reports, county staff then provide their own analysis, she said. In the Honuaula case, staff recommended that the planning commission greenlight the project for the next phase, outlining how the property owners planned to preserve wildlife, expand the highway leading to the development and create a cultural advisory committee to help oversee historical sites on the land.

The Maui Meadows neighborhood faced severe flooding during recent storms.
The development is planned for the land south of Maui Meadows. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

Supporters of the project say over the last decade, the project has been changed to take in residents’ concerns. If it moves forward, the property owners say they’ll have protected scores of historical sites, including remnants of Hawaiian villages that date back around 400 years. Others say it’ll bring rare, yet desperately needed, affordable housing to the resort community of South Maui.

But for some community members, this is just another example of what they see as a broken system that doesn’t hold developers to their past promises.

Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association, said that many people have lost trust in the process and are skeptical about whether county officials will ensure that Honuaula serves local families — and not just those people who can afford multimillion dollar homes in South Maui.

The legal fights are still ongoing, and hearings will continue in the months to come.

“We refer to it, as many in the community do, as ‘the rubber stamp,’” said Moran. “Because they never seem to come down on the side of environmentalists or the general community — it’s whatever the developer wants.”

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation and the Fred Baldwin Memorial Foundation.

What sets us apart.

Regardless of who or what you voted for, we hope we’ve distinguished ourselves from other news media through our election coverage as well as our commitment to strengthening the civic health of Hawaii.

Now, we’re asking you to consider becoming part of something larger than yourself by joining as a Civil Beat member.

Help kick-start Civil Beat’s summer fundraising campaign with a gift of $5+/month or one-time donation of $60+ and receive a limited edition “Truth Maze” beach towel.

About the Author