A lawsuit filed by Hoopili residents says power lines that were supposed to be buried are now towering above the subdivision.

Russell Tupinio was one of dozens of eager first-time homeowners when he moved into the new Hoopili subdivision near Kapolei in the sprawling westward expansion on Oahu. The purchase closed on Christmas Eve, 2020.

Tupinio, age 34, had worked for years to raise the money to buy the $815,000 home, starting as a restaurant worker in his teens and then in his own small catering company, where he prepares Filipino specialties for families celebrating graduations and their babies’ first birthdays.

So he and other residents were dismayed when Hawaiian Electric Co. began installing massive 46-kilovolt feeder power lines that encircle the new neighborhood. To them, the multi-pronged, 65-foot poles have spoiled the open views of the mountains that they prized and radically changed the community’s look and feel.

Russell Tupinio stand in front of the 46-kV transmission lines running through the Hoopili development near Kapolei. The above-ground lines are now the subject of a class-action lawsuit. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

“It sucks,” Tupinio said, his opinion echoed in interviews with a half-dozen other Hoopili homeowners.

“It’s been a big downer,” said his neighbor, Jayson Hayworth, an information technology specialist who lives with his fiance in an $850,000 house a few blocks away.

Since 1966, the Honolulu City Council has required electrical wires to be placed underground in new residential developments. At the time, the Honolulu Star-Bulletin praised the council passing a law that “would promote a more beautiful Honolulu.”

Underground power lines soon came to represent a gold standard and a major selling feature for new subdivisions on Oahu. Under state law, the Public Utilities Commission is required to hold a hearing whenever a utility company asks to place 46-kV electrical wiring overhead rather than underground in residential subdivisions.

Underground lines can cost between three to five times more than overhead lines, according to industry literature.

It didn’t even occur to Tupinio to ask whether the incoming electrical lines would go underground or overhead, he said recently, adding he just assumed they would be installed consistent with other upscale housing areas. Other neighbors, however, have said they asked sales agents when purchasing and were assured that the lines would be placed underground.

The lines run to a new power substation that will serve a number of new subdivision communities in the area, which are also being developed by D.R. Horton, a Houston-based real estate development firm.

A finding of facts report about the Hoopili development issued by the Land Use Commission in 2012 said that “all utility lines will be underground to minimize visual impacts.” (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The existence of the towering power lines at Hoopili is now the subject of a class-action lawsuit brought by Tupinio and other residents against D.R. Horton and Hawaiian Electric. The lawsuit alleges that Hoopili residents were the victims of a “bait and switch” that should not be allowed and that both companies collaborated in the scheme.

In a statement, HECO said the company performed the work in that way “to fulfill our contractual obligation to our customer, D. R. Horton,” and that HECO had followed the “clearly-defined process for building electric infrastructure.”

Honey Maltin-Wisot, a spokeswoman for D.R. Horton, said company officials would not comment. In its response to the lawsuit, D.R. Horton has indicated that it intends to enforce the arbitration agreement purchasers signed when they bought their homes, which may preclude homeowners from suing the developer.

Late Notice Of Overhead Lines

Hoopili is a master-planned community located on more than 1,550 acres, in what was once rich farmland controlled by Ewa Plantation, Ewa Sugar Co. and Oahu Sugar Co. Located south of H-1 and east of the University of Hawaii West Oahu, the development runs parallel to the new light rail line.

In 2007, D.R. Horton asked the Land Use Commission to reclassify the land from agricultural to urban to allow it to build a large housing tract in the area. In 2012, the commission ruled in favor of the developer. The company has since built 2,400 housing units there and has plans to build 9,350 more.

In its environmental impact statement, finalized in 2008, and signed by Dean Uchida, then vice president of D.R. Horton, Schuler Division, said that “all new primary and secondary distribution lines serving the Hoopili project will be placed underground to reduce visual impacts.”

In the finding of facts report issued by the Land Use Commission in 2012 in the land reclassification, the agency said that “all utility lines will be underground to minimize visual impacts, except those that have already been installed by HECO, the BWS (Board of Water Supply) and other public or private utility companies.”

Russell Tupinio assumed that the 46-kV lines would be installed underground in Hoopili consistent with other upscale housing areas. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

At Hoopili, the distribution lines for power – the lines that connect power directly to people’s homes – have been placed underground. The residents are concerned about the larger transmission lines, which bring the initial high-voltage power to a nearby substation. This substation sits on the edge of the subdivision where Tupinio and the other residents live.

Neither Tupinio or his neighbors noticed the series of legal notices in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser informing the public in October 2021 that HECO was seeking to install 46-kV overhead transmission lines connecting to the Kulanihakoi Substation.

HECO had filed the request with the Public Utilities Commission in November 2020, the month before Tupinio moved into his new home.

The PUC approved HECO’s request after a 16-minute online public hearing on Oct. 26, 2021, that featured only HECO representatives and PUC officials. No members of the public offered testimony.

According to PUC documents, the decision to put the lines overhead was financial. None of the parties was willing to foot the bill for putting the high-voltage lines underground and correspondence appears to show they were disputing who should be responsible.

Despite what company executives had told state officials earlier, officials at D.R. Horton now said they wouldn’t pay for putting transmission lines underground and believed that HECO was responsible for paying for it.

“The estimated cost for the 46kV overhead line portion of the work is $6,700,000,” wrote Tracy Tonaki, D.R. Horton’s senior vice president. “It is also our understanding that this cost is Hawaii Electric’s responsibility as part of the System Substation improvements. In response to your query, D.R. Horton is not interested in paying the additional costs of $25,100,000 to underground this 46kV line.”

The city also declined to pay for the work.

City of Honolulu Director of Planning and Permitting office, Dean Uchida during press conference after Mayor Blangiardi’s first state of Honolulu speech.
Former director of the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting, Dean Uchida, previously worked as vice president of D.R. Horton’s Schuler Division where he had signed off on the environmental impact statement for the Hoopili project. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

“The City and County of Honolulu is not in a position to pay for the additional cost to underground the electric lines for the project,” wrote Dean Uchida, who had left D.R. Horton and at that point served as director of the city’s Department of Planning and Permitting. He has since left that job.

The state also said no.

“We are not interested in participating at this time,” wrote Jade Butay, then the state’s director of transportation.

None of the letters made reference to the environmental impact statement or Land Use Commission findings of fact.

Neighborhood Board Chimes In

Hoopili residents began turning to the Makakilo-Kapolei-Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board for help last year once HECO began installing the poles. Makana Paris, the board’s chairman, said it was hard to figure out how to help them when the regulatory agencies — the LUC and the PUC — appeared in conflict with one another. So they began asking questions to figure out what had happened and unravel the timeline of events, he said.

Board members believe they were given the runaround. A HECO official, Weston Nakoa Garcia, made a presentation to the board about the Kalanihakoi substation on Oct. 27, 2021, where a few board members told him they were opposed to the lines being placed overhead.

“I think if we were in Hawaii Kai we would not be seeing any wires above ground but we are on the west side so we have wires above ground,” said Kioni Dudley, the board’s vice chair adding that he was “deadset against it.”

HECO’s Garcia did not, however, tell them that the process was well underway and that the PUC had held a public hearing on the topic the previous night, Oct. 26.

“They said they would work with us, and three weeks later, it was approved,” Dudley said recently, recalling the October 2021 meeting.

Makakilo-Kapolei-Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board members have been cautioned they were placing themselves at legal risk by continuing to object to the installation of the overhead lines. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

The board passed a number of motions criticizing what had happened and considered trying to take legal action to block construction of the overhead lines.

Executives at D.R. Horton have also made things uncomfortable for the board. They filed complaints with the Honolulu Neighborhood Commission, the city agency that oversees the boards, and said that the board’s actions constituted what they called “tortious interference with a private dispute.”

Board members could be held individually liable for violations of the city Neighborhood Plan and provisions of federal law, wrote D.R. Horton’s attorney, Benjamin Kudo.

Lloyd Yonenaka, executive director of the Neighborhood Commission, attended a board meeting in person and told the members they were placing themselves at legal risk by persisting with their concerns in resolutions because, he said, they were exceeding their authority.

Paris said that the board decided to persevere despite the warnings.

“We felt we got elected to do a job,” he said. “We are willing to roll the dice and see what happens.”

In April the board passed a resolution criticizing overhead power lines as a potential health risk that adversely affects communities and makes them less resilient in disaster. A second resolution criticized the process by which the lines had been installed at Hoopili, a complaint they sent to officials at the PUC.

The class-action lawsuit is moving through the courts. Some residents have signed on while others have resigned themselves to the situation.

And some are making other plans.

“Some people feel strongly that their kid’s health is at risk, living so close to the poles may cause long-term health issues for them,” Hayworth said. “A lot of people are talking about potentially moving, maybe living with their parents again. It’s hard to afford a new place but they really don’t want their 2-year-old child or their father who has a pacemaker living there.”

In the beginning, he said, everybody used to get together on the weekends for barbecues but now the enthusiasm for the new community has cooled.

“We still get together and hang out, but there is definitely that sense of defeat, a sense of ‘wow, this big corporation really did whatever it wanted with our lives,’” Hayworth said.

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