County planners are nearing a new phase in the long, slogging process to update the document that’s intended to direct South Maui’s character and inform policy decisions about land use, parks, development and infrastructure.

maui locator badgeIt’s been a long time coming.

Updates to the county’s community plans are supposed to occur once a decade. But it’s been 24 years since the Kihei-Makena Community Plan got an overhaul.

Since the plan’s conception in 1998, luxury hotels and condominiums have multiplied. Tourism has exploded. Traffic gridlock in South Kihei has become the norm and, with a brand new high school under construction, residents fear the chronic crush of cars on major roadways is bound to grow worse.

There are also new considerations, such as the threat to coastal roads and homes posed by sea level rise.

“We’re so far behind,” said Maui County Councilwoman Kelly Takaya King, who represents South Maui residents.

The current plan has an “ancient” drainage plan that calls for hardening of drainage ditches with concrete, she said, adding that nobody thinks that’s a good idea anymore. “Things change and that’s why it’s important to keep the plan updated,” King said.

A photo of Kihei traffic
With simultaneous construction projects on Piilani Highway and South Kihei Road, residents traveling to and from Kihei are now dealing with almost constant congestion. A third major Kihei thoroughfare proposed in 1998 as a way to calm traffic remains unfinished. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

County planners expect to publish a draft South Maui Community Plan by early August, following two years of community workshops and meetings during which county officials and residents worked together to establish a vision for South Maui’s decadal future.

Then it will be kicked over from the county Planning Department to a forthcoming 13-member Community Plan Advisory Committee, which will edit the document over a six-month period. Mayor Mike Victorino will select four committee members and the County Council will choose nine. The council and the mayor will also need to sign off on the document before it’s finalized.

One point of controversy lies in the second sentence of the Maui County code that states the purpose of such a document, describing it as a mix of provisions that are either “meant to be policy guidelines” or “intended to have the force and effect of law” — a confusing soup of requirements and recommendations.

“There has been a huge amount of controversy over that because which is it?” said Maui County Planning Program Administrator Pam Eaton. “Is it a guide or is it legally binding?”

There are instances where developers have been required to adhere to a region’s community plan. In other cases, as with a clause that stipulates South Maui infrastructure should be upgraded concurrently with new development, the plan has not been followed so closely.

Since 1998, for example, there has been an explosion of development in South Maui. But infrastructure improvements, such as improvements to water drainage and roadways, have been relatively minimal.

Although the current plan is outdated in that it doesn’t consider the predicted effects of climate change nor the severity of the dearth of affordable housing, the biggest problem is that it has a lot of good ideas that have not been implemented unilaterally, according to Mike Moran, president of the Kihei Community Association.

“It’s a great plan but just like any other plan if you just put it on the shelf and don’t follow it, it ends up being a big waste of time,” he said. “These plans mean absolutely nothing if you just do what you want to do.”

A photo of Kihei Community Association members speaking with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele about a proposal to build a paved path underneath Piilani Highway.
Kihei Community Association members speak with U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele about a proposal to build a paved path underneath Piilani Highway. Marina Riker/Civil Beat/2022

As part of the 1998 community planning process, the county said it wanted to create a more efficient system of roadways within the center of Kihei, equipped with greenways, bike lanes and trail systems so people could get around without cars.

The plan christened a project called the “North-South Collector Road” as an antidote to worsening Kihei traffic. It was envisioned as an alternative to the community’s two main thoroughfares, South Kihei Road and Piilani Highway, with pathways for pedestrians and cyclists.

But over the years, only a few sections got built. After a series of delays, the county has said it’s now tentatively scheduled for construction in fiscal year 2025, which starts in July 2024.

“It’s stated in the current plan that South Maui would be developed as a walkable, bikeable community, but how many sidewalks have we gotten in 24 years?” Moran said. “It’s still a patchwork of sidewalks here and sidewalks there.”

Rob Weltman, a former chairman of Sierra Club Maui, said he wants to see a plan update that boosts options for people to get around South Maui without a car. And while he’s broadly wary of more development, he said the area is in dire need of workforce housing.

“No one really wants more development but development is needed to meet certain needs,” said Weltman, who is the founder of ReTree Hawaii, a program that matches volunteers with opportunities to plant trees. “We have people who can’t afford a place to stay and we need to help them with that.”

The plan should also consider the important role of wetlands and watersheds to divert floodwater before it hits Kihei, he said. Following flash floods last December that forced gulches to overflow with water, mud and debris, chronic flooding and stormwater drainage have become particularly timely concerns among some residents.

Adele Rugg, a longtime volunteer with the Maui Police Department’s Citizens’ Patrol and an outrigger canoe paddler, rattled off a litany of anxieties: insufficient infrastructure, wildfire risk, drought. But overcrowding, she said, is her top concern.

“It’s like every piece of this island is for sale to the highest bidder,” said Rugg, who lives in an oceanfront condo along traffic-snarled South Kihei Road. “I’ve been living on Maui for over 40 years and to see what’s happening breaks my heart.”

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

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