Planning director calls for revoking permits for Aina Lea golf courses

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It’s been two dozen years of false starts and lawsuits for Aina Lea, where a series of massive development plans have come and gone for 3,000 acres in South Kohala.

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It’s been two dozen years of false starts and lawsuits for Aina Lea, where a series of massive development plans have come and gone for 3,000 acres in South Kohala.

Now, the latest rendition of the struggling project is set to lose the permits that would have theoretically allowed the development of six 18-hole championship golf courses on the land. Hawaii County Planning Director Duane Kanuha is recommending that the Leeward Planning Commission revoke the permit for the courses issued in 1991, saying the repeated delays in construction have left the project in violation of conditions set during its approval.

In part, it’s been a story of closing doors and missed opportunities, although one of the developers said they’ll continue to pursue some development.

“We are actually moving forward,” said Robert Wessels, CEO and manager of DW Aina Lea.

When Aina Lea first got county approval to build the courses and a golf teaching academy, the county zoning for the land was unplanned. Five years later, county code was amended to put an agricultural designation on all lands in the unplanned category. Then, in 2005, the state Legislature passed Act 205 prohibiting golf courses and driving ranges on agricultural land.

Theoretically, Aina Lea’s golf courses could have been “grandfathered,” if the construction of three courses was completed by 2011 as required, following multiple time extensions. Instead, a plan that once encompassed hundreds of town homes and timeshares, parks, trails, commercial area and ball fields — continued to languish.

Today, Bridge Aina Lea owns a 1,900-acre portion of the land zoned agriculture, and DW Aina Lea owns a 1,060-acre tract designated urban. Infrastructure work is underway at the latter tract now, Wessels said.

Construction on The Villages at Aina Lea could begin in April, he said.

Close to $2 million has been put into escrow to cover intersection work at the Aina Lea access point on Queen Kaahumanu Highway, Wessels said.

“That was important to the community and to us,” he said.

A consultant is working on a supplemental environmental study following a legal challenge to an early environmental assessment, Wessels said.

“There were requirements that came up through the process, which we are addressing,” he said.

The property will have 2,000 homes built throughout a number of years, with housing geared to the local population built first, followed by the high-end golf course homes, Wessels said. Aina Lea retained the option to build out a business park and medical facility, but it’s hard to gauge the scale of those ventures until there are residences on the land, he said.

The history of litigation on the land has been a long one, including a five-year legal battle that went to the state Supreme Court after the state Land Use Commission changed urban zoning on the land back to agricultural in 2010. The PUC reverted the zoning on the grounds that the owners failed to complete 385 affordable housing units by a 2010 deadline. Bridge Aina Lea and DW Aina Lea sued the commission, and the matter ended up in the high court, where justices in late 2014 sided with developers, saying the LUC failed to meet legal timelines of its own in the case.

Wessel, whose company bought the land in 2009, deferred to an attorney for comment about the recommendation to revoke the golf course permits, but Wessels did confirm that DW Aina Lea would like to be able to build a single golf course on the land.

The Leeward Planning Commission will take up Kanuha’s recommendation during its Thursday meeting at 9:30 a.m. at the West Hawaii Civic Center.

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In letters to the county, the South Kohala Community Development Plan Action Committee and the Waikoloa Village Association agree the permits should be yanked.

Email Bret Yager at byager@westhawaiitoday.com.