Proposed Development on Kaiwa Ridge Fuels Community Anxiety

Concerns over runoff, land clearing and visual impact on what is now mostly conservation land pit an owner family against critical area residents.

At dinnertime last Wednesday night, the Kailua High cafeteria was filled with community voices as the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources hosted a public hearing about the proposed development on Kaiwa Ridge.

The large crowd included swaths of people wearing green shirts, which represented support for the “Save Kaiwa Ridge” group that is organized through Facebook. At the front of this crowd sat the Horn family and their representatives — new owners of 37 acres of what is mostly conservation land above Kanapu’u Drive in the Enchanted Lakes subdivision.

The overall mood was cordial, with an undercurrent of intense emotions as one by one, residents who would be affected by any proposed development shared their concerns for their families’ health, property and the future of the prominent Kailua ridge line. Their concerns centered around two main issues: the potential that increased stormwater runoff might flood homes below, and the expectation that conservation land should remain undeveloped.

Travis.Thurston via Wikimedia Commons

Kaiwa Ridge

The view from atop Kaiwa Ridge, site of a dispute between area residents and owners of a 37-acre tract being prepared for a large home and farming.

The issue of runoff centers around a large concrete culvert which was built years ago to handle both the runoff from the hillside as well as from the further development of the Kailua Bluffs subdivision that was never completed. This culvert is jointly owned by adjacent landowners, and MDHE LLC, the Horn family’s company through which they own the land. In the environmental assessment they completed in November 2014, it is stated that this culvert should be able to handle any extra runoff from the house and driveway. However, landowners testified that time and time again, during heavy rains, they are already close to being inundated with mud, debris and water flooding down the hillside.

The residents testified that this means the current drainage systems are barely handling the existing runoff, and worry that they could completely fail under any added strain.

Fueling residents’ anxiety is the fact that in addition to the proposed single-family home, which requires carving out a 16-foot wide, 1,220 foot driveway from the currently untouched hillside, the Horn family also plans to convert one section of land into “subsistence farming” for their own use, and another into a “restoration area.” The concern is that this will require large-scale clearing of land — removing large, mature trees and extensive vegetation, which, however invasive, are currently holding the hillside in place.

In addition, the soil’s “permeability is slow, runoff is rapid and the erosion hazard is severe,” as stated in the Horn’s own environmental assessment, which then goes on to state that this type of clay soil is not suited for farming. In addition to runoff concerns and despite an insistence that they will only use organic farming methods, the Horn family has residents understandably hesitant about having a farm above their property because there have already been two instances of large-scale herbicide spraying to clear access roads on the property, which caused headaches and flare-ups of asthma in the families living below.

All of this serves as a stark demonstration of why promises from real estate agents need to be written into the contract. Many residents, including the familiar face of Terry Seelig from the fire department, testified that they purchased their homes with the understanding that the land behind them would remain untouched open space. However, the land is zoned as urban use, general purpose preservation land, as well as the more regulated zoning of conservation land. The majority of the land — 30 out of 37 acres — is under the latter zoning, also called restricted preservation land (P-1), and it is on this land that the Horn family proposes to build a large, winding driveway, the outline of which is already visible from the highway.

The permit for the home under contention is located on general preservation (P-2) zoned land. P-2 district regulations allow a single-family dwelling and crop production with approval from the Board of Land and Natural Resources. It is required that the roofline and coloring of this home “blend in” with the surrounding land, but the CDUA application states that it will be “visible from distant points in Kailua.”

During the meeting, photographs were provided by the MDHE LLC representative, showing locations in the neighborhood where the home would be hidden by existing structures. However, the same CDUA application also admits that the roofline would be visible “from a small portion of Kanapuʻu Drive,” which implies that the photographs were only taken from carefully chosen vantage points. All of these considerations call into question whether the proposed use of the land will preserve, or would permanently alter the scenic Kaiwa Ridge.

After the meeting, the Horn family expressed concern about a “misinformation campaign” they believe has targeted them unfairly. Indeed, conflicting information about the land use, zoning, ownership and permitting process has swirled around this project since the beginning. Many of these disputes have hopefully been put to rest by the presentations at Wednesday’s meeting. On the other hand, residents of Kailua Bluff argue that false accusations of vandalism and threatening behavior have been leveled against them to discredit their attempt to understand and participate in the approval process that will affect their homes for years to come.

It is clear that while the Horn family has demonstrated a sincere desire to become “good stewards” of the land, many troubling questions remain.