HANALEI — It was standing room only at Hanalei School’s cafeteria Tuesday evening as more than 400 Kaua‘i residents turned out to hear a presentation by developers of the Hanalei Plantation Resort.
The meeting was an opportunity for people to ask questions and express their opinions about the 86 hotel units and 34 luxury homes planned by Ohana Real Estate Investors in the heart of Hanalei Bay.
OREI Vice President Eric Crispin said Hanalei is clearly a place many hold dear.
“The people who came out tonight came out in large numbers to tell us it’s a special place,” he said. “It’s a special place for us as well. We care deeply about the place. We also care deeply about the environment and the culture and we’re trying to strive for that balance between what is financially feasible and looking after the environment as well as the culture.”
A 21-page list was filled with names of people who wanted to testify at the meeting. Many of them were concerned about the environmental and visual impact of a large-scale project on the Hanalei River Ridge.
“We are the original stewards of this land and we can see that this is an opportunity to save a significant part of Hanalei Bay’s beauty,” said Hayley Ham Young-Giorgio, of Hanalei. As someone with several generations of family from Hanalei, Ham Young-Giorgio lamented the potential loss of the “Garden of Eden that so well defines Kaua‘i.”
The development company is owned by Ohana Holdings LLC, whose primary investor is eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, one of the 50 wealthiest people in the United States and a known philanthropist.
“We are very early in the process,” said Michelle Swartman, OREI’s director of land and community development. “There’s no real sense of urgency.”
Swartman, who is originally from O‘ahu, lives on the North Shore of Kaua‘i with her Kaua‘i-born husband and their sons.
“I wanted to just first to thank the Hanalei to Ha‘ena Community Association Board,” said Swartman, adding that it takes a lot of courage for the people to speak publicly — and for her to face the crowd.
“We understand the desire to protect (Hanalei),” she said. “Whenever you feel something is special and worthy of protection, you’re going to hold it close to your chest and to your heart and I understand all the concern that you may have.”
Swartman said Omidyar does not get involved in the daily operations of OREI. His focus, she said, is on philanthropic efforts such as food security and sustainability.
“He has investment projects here on Kaua‘i in regard to alternative energy,” said Swartman, inviting people to visit the ‘Ulopono Initiative website for more on Omidyar’s vision and where he uses his financial resources.
“We have a whole bunch of PhDs and scientists on our team to help us understand first what we have on our property, to understand what was on our property,” said Swartman, adding that those same PhDs and scientists will help the company as it moves to where it wants to be.
The crowd burst into applause when Swartman showed a permitting flowchart covering multiple jurisdictions.
“This covers the federal, state and county jurisdictions and approvals that we have yet to go through,” said Swartman. “I appreciate the applause, because we need the encouragement too.”
She then turned over the room to Rob Iopa, a principal architect with WCIT Architecture. Iopa has been working on Hanalei Plantation Resort plans for more than two years.
“I’ve been to many community meetings, but I can’t remember one that has had this type of turnout,” said Iopa to another round of applause. “I think the other part that catches me a little off guard is that for some reason, I didn’t expect to see a lot of keiki, and I see a lot of keiki in the crowd. It reminds me again how important this is not for what happens today, but for what happens tomorrow.”
Iopa talked about bringing the “special ambiance of Hanalei” to the project, along with the use of “Hawaiian sustainability.”
He said the property is zoned for 600 units, but the developers are only proposing a total of 120 units, including 86 hotel units and 34 residential lots.
The residential lots are being proposed on top of a ridge along Hanalei River, and would be suitable for luxury homes. The hotel units — bungalows or cottages roughly 500-feet each — would be built on a large piece of land between the ridge and the former Princeville Hotel, now the St. Regis Resort.
Additionally, the project includes restoration of a large and ancient Hawaiian fishpond near the ocean. The fishpond is currently covered by marsh full of invasive species. Some of the cottages would line up around the fishpond.
The property would feature a central parking lot with access by golf carts. Iopa said the design of the buildings would “touch the ground as light as possible.”
“We need to look to the past to guide the future,” Iopa said of embracing the natural environment and blending nature with the proposed development.
But when Iopa specifically addressed concerns over “McMansions looming over the river,” he was met with a shout of “yeah, right,” from someone in the crowd.
Faced with 21 pages of people who signed up to speak, facilitator Herb Lee had his work cut out for him ensuring that the evening stayed on time and friendly.
“To introduce multi-million-dollar homes sitting on top of the ridge looking down on Black Pot, would break the heart of thousands of people who live here and also those who come to visit and enjoy the beauty of the Bay,” Ham Young-Giorgio said. “Building on the ridge opens the door to letting it become more like Laguna Beach and less like Hanalei.”
Nick Beck took a different strategy. He asked the crowd what they saw looking in various directions around Hanalei and was met with shouts of “Green!”
“When you look to Princeville, what do you see?” Beck asked.
“White!” the crowd responded as he asked the OREI team to consider the visual impact on the community.
“Princeville was a disaster,” one woman in the crowd said loudly.
John Ferry asked developers to use story poles, “so the world can see what they are doing on the ridge.”
“This is a sacred place,” he said of several other failed developments on the ridge over the years. “It is not meant to be developed.”
Ferry also asked if it was OREI’s intention to eventually sell the property.
“Clearly there’s a message that you care deeply,” said Crispin in response to Ferry. “We are a landowner. It is not our intention to flip and sell.”
One woman raised the question of sewage treatment.
“Where is all that (expletive deleted) going?” she asked. “My daughter does water studies three times a week in Hanalei Bay. When you swim in Hanalei Bay, you swim in sewage. What else do we have to give up?”
Coral researcher Terry Lilley also had concerns over Hanalei Bay.
“All good but not one person mentioned the health of the reefs in Hanalei Bay! A project this big would make a negative impact on the reefs as it would release toxic mud into an already polluted bay,” he said in an email Wednesday morning. “The developers had no mention of following the Endangered Species Act and protecting the reefs. We already have the worst coral disease to ever hit Hawai‘i and a large development right on the river would make the problem worse. I think people are forgetting that the sea is 79 percent of our island.”
Musician Kepa Kruse commended OREI for a “great presentation.”
“It was very culturally sensitive,” he said. “We all appreciate here what you have done. But please, tell Mr. Omidyar this: We’re not mad at him. I don’t believe the problem is with Pierre.”
The problem, Kruse said, stems from the management team and the board of financial advisors telling Omidyar that this is a good investment.
“I want to send a formal invitation to Mr. Omidyar,” he said. “Come to Hanalei. See what we see. Live how we live. Walk the pier. Come down and eat from the Black Pot of the Ham Young family. I think that’s the only way that the change is gonna happen.”
• Laurie Cicotello, business writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 257) or firstname.lastname@example.org