Sep 15, 2022
The 257-acre Maalaea Mauka parcel rests between the base of the West Maui Mountains and Honoapiilani Highway near the intersection with North Kihei Road in this photo taken in June. The county had originally planned to purchase the land but it was sold instead to developer Peter Martin’s companies in May. The council is now considering a proposal that would allow the county to take the land through eminent domain. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
Saying that Maalaea is important land for managing fires, floods, sediment runoff and water quality, a Maui County Council committee on Wednesday moved forward with a plan to acquire about 257 acres of a watershed that was recently bought by local developer Peter Martin.
The Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee voted unanimously to adopt a resolution that would start the process of eminent domain, which gives power to the local government to take private property and convert it into public use, in order to buy the parcel within the Maalaea Mauka/Pohakea Watershed.
“Considering the four major streams associated with the Pohakea Watershed, the coral reef existing directly offshore, the Hawaiian Humpback Whale Sanctuary, the millions of gallons of stormwater that pour into this plain during high flow events, and the potential for this land to mitigate sediment transport to the ocean through restoration activities, it’s important that this critical watershed be protected,” committee Chairperson Kelly King said.
But, acquiring the land through eminent domain would be no easy feat.
At the beginning of fiscal years 2021 and 2022, the county had allocated funding for eventual purchase of the land for $7.2 million and the state Board of Land and Natural Resources approved $1 million from its Legacy Land Conservation Program to support the acquisition, King said.
Supporters of a proposal to allow the county to take 257 acres of the Maalaea Mauka/Pohakea Watershed area from developer Peter Martin say the area is crucial for preservation and should be owned by the county. Others, however, say the move would “trample upon private property rights.” The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
However, the 257-acre property was sold by the Spencer family on May 10 for $6 million to Martin, who beat the county to a purchase it hoped to make for preservation. Spencer has previously said that he waited for about two years for the county to buy the land, and that he notified the mayor prior to the purchase that he was in escrow with Martin.
King said Wednesday that the council was “unaware that the landowner was in negotiations with another purchaser” and added that Martin indicated to Trust for Public Land that he is not interested in selling the entire parcel for the purpose of conservation.
Members of the Maalaea Community Association, the Sierra Club Maui, Kihei Community Association and Maui Tomorrow, and other residents on Wednesday testified in strong support of the county taking over the property.
Maui resident Genesis Young said he supports using eminent domain power to acquire land for environmental protection and preservation.
“It will also improve the tourist experience of that area, so it helps our industry and it helps businesses, so it’s not a good place to develop and it really, really needs to be protected,” Young said during the committee meeting. “From my understanding, everything pretty much has been done to try and not use eminent domain and I think if there was ever a time to use it, it’s now on this particular parcel.”
Ryan Grether, co-owner of West Maui Construction, one of Martin’s companies, spoke in opposition of the resolution, saying it’s “without merit and it won’t succeed.”
“I think it’s a little more than a careless attempt to trample upon private property rights,” Grether said. “I think this is so egregious that I have to speak up. What you’re voting on is less about protecting the environment and more about being petty and vindictive and squandering of public funds instead of working together with the community to solve the affordable housing crisis. My main focus is housing.”
Grether said he was aware that the county had the intention to acquire the parcel before West Maui Construction became the new owners along with Hope Builders and Wailuku Agribusiness Co.
Still, the 257 acres are only 5 percent of the Maalaea Mauka/Pohakea Watershed, so if protecting the watershed and developing on the land is the county’s priority, Grether questioned why the council isn’t trying to seize all 5,268 acres.
“It makes no sense,” he said. “The best way, if you want to mitigate the stormwater concerns, is to develop the property. We can build homes, build structures to capture runoff within the property and you don’t have to do anything; we could do it for you. And, we can build homes for working people.”
In disagreement with the builder, David Dorn of the Sierra Club and The South Maui Save the Wetlands Hui said there are critical habitats and environments above and below the 257-acre parcel.
“This property is a conduit and connection from the upper part of the watershed to the lower part,” Dorn said. “I have heard recently from potentially influential people who have said that the county dropped the ball when it came to trying to buy this property. Some people will try and tell you that Peter Martin legally bought this property fair and square, but that’s in question. The importance of this land and environment far outweigh these technical matters.”
Maui Environmental Consulting senior ecologist Mike Reyes, who worked to develop the Southwest Maui Watershed Plan, and environmental scientist Robin Knox, who is currently running for council, both said that this area was the best place to incorporate pollution control for the tons of sediment flowing off the mountain.
Along with the Maalaea Village Association, Maui Nui Marine Resource Council and the state Department of Land and Natural Resources, the county would preserve the Maalaea Mauka/Pohakea Watershed and manage for wildfire prevention, flood control and erosion control to protect the water quality, corals and marine health of Maalaea Bay, King said.
Maalaea Mauka/Pohakea Watershed would also be used for watershed projects, open space, reservoir development and public parks.
Speaking on behalf of DLNR’s Division of Forestry and Wildlife, Maui Branch Forestry Program Manager Lance De Silva said the department is not taking a position on the initiative.
The $1 million from BLNR’s Legacy Land Conservation Program is still available for the county, but it’s based on the “willing seller,” De Silva said. The funding would have to go back to the board for approval if the resolution is passed and the county pursues the acquisition again.
In general, De Silva said the department is still interested in how the land is managed, which should include installing green breaks for mitigating storm runoff and other methods for fire presupression and suppression.
“Whoever has the land at the end of the day, it all needs to be considered,” he said.
Committee Vice Chairperson Shane Sinenci and Council Members Gabe Johnson, Alice Lee, Mike Molina and Yuki Lei Sugimura voted unanimously to recommend adoption of the resolution. Tamara Paltin was excused.
“Just to be clear, I’m supportive of affordable housing for Maui Nui residents, however, I am not, nor should we be, for housing at any cost. Last week, we did have more flooding in South Maui and we were criticized for denying an affordable housing project in that same flood zone,” Sinenci said. “I appreciate, you know, Mr. Martin and Mr. Grether for their willingness to provide affordable housing for our residents who need them, however, Maalaea is known to be a fire-prone area. … I’m not supportive of putting residents, let alone children, in harm’s way.”
If the resolution passes through the full council, the item would head to the administration with an updated appraisal and market price value for the property. Then, the county would engage in negotiations with the property owner.
* Dakota Grossman can be reached at email@example.com.
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