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Charter school project back before land panel

  • Site rendering for the proposed Connections New Century Public Charter School.

The Windward Planning Commission is set to decide whether to grant a special permit for Connections New Century Public Charter School to build a new campus on about 70 acres of state land in Hilo.

The campus would be built on agricultural-zoned land near the corner of Edita Street and Kaumana Drive. The project has faced opposition from neighbors, who have cited increased traffic, water availability questions and the potential encroachment by the school on the neighborhood’s quiet lifestyle.

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Plans for the proposed campus call for a student body of 381, a 30-bed dormitory, gym, cafeteria, library, caretaker’s residence and two parking lots with a total of 140 stalls.

The planning commission hearing is at 9 a.m. on Oct. 7 via Zoom.

The state’s Intermediate Court of Appeals sent the matter back to the commission in February 2020 after the school and its board, Community Based Education Support Services, appealed the panel’s denial in 2014 of the Hilo school’s permit application.

“The Intermediate Court of Appeals was very harsh in its criticism of the Windward Planning Commission ruling that we could not meet the water allocation standards and also that we couldn’t use the property for agricultural purposes,” said Ted Hong, attorney for CBESS. “Those are the only two issues that are before the Windward Planning Commission right now.”

Henry Lee Loy, who lives on nearby, said Tuesday he and the Malama Kaumana ‘Ohana — which he described as “a group of families that got together to raise awareness” — believe that granting “a permit to allow a school of this magnitude … would be an extremely foolish thing to do” at the location.

“That intersection at Kaumana and Edita is dangerous, and they can’t put in traffic signal lights because there’s just not enough sight distance at that intersection,” Lee Loy said.

Lee Loy said the use of a catchment system to supply water in excess of the 4,200 gallons per day the Department of Water Supply said is available there raises concerns “about waterborne disease such as leptospirosis, dengue fever (and) rat lung disease.”

There’s no county sewer hookup available for the project and, according to Lee Loy, plans to use biological wastewater treatment instead of a septic system could have consequences during heavy rains and flash flooding.

“During a storm runoff, I’m concerned that the water could enter into Hilo Bay where we swim, we surf, there’s kayakers and paddleboarders and the outrigger canoe paddlers practice …,” he said. “This project up mauka could affect things down makai. So, basically, it’s not only a concern for the local Kaumana neighborhood. I’m saying it’s a bigger concern than that.”

Ivan Mochida, a contractor who also lives in the area, told the Tribune-Herald he has similar concerns.

“No. 1, guaranteed, is the traffic impact,” Mochida said. “Kaumana is a wind(ing), narrow, no-shoulder road,” Mochida said. “We already have accidents without heavy traffic, so can you imagine the impact? Then water — there’s not enough water for that school, so they’re going to use catchment for the nonpotable stuff. But what if we have a drought?

“That’s all been said before, the first time (the commission) voted on this school, and they rejected it.”

Mochida said he’s also concerned about potential health consequences from wastewater runoff.

“They’re going to use a new system for the wastewater, and we cannot testify (about) new things, but it’s not really a proven thing,” Mochida said. “I’m afraid of future problems … such as if the pumps give up and they’ve got to release some waste, we’re going to get the smell and all that.”

Mochida mentioned Big Island Dairy in Ookala, which was fined for runoff of untreated wastewater.

“They had a lot of rain and they had to release (the wastewater) in the gulches, and it went down in the village,” he said. “It’s the same thing up there. It’s going to affect people downside.”

Both Lee Loy and Mochida said they’re not opposed to the school, but are opposed to building the campus at the Kaumana location.

According to Hong, opponents have been canvassing the neighborhood saying the school “is going to use an open sewer system.”

“And it’s completely not true,” Hong said. “And certainly, we would not be using something that would not be approved by the Department of Health. And I would point out, that is not one of the factors that the planning commission thought we were deficient on or actually addressed.”

Hong added neighbors of the proposed project “will use any reason as an excuse to not have Connections in that location.”

“It is a complete lie that we were going to put dorms there to house students during the regular school year,” he said. “That’s a lie that has been exaggerated by a couple of people in the community. It was never that. It was for students from other schools to come in over the summer break and do a summer program. It would be a small number; they would be under adult supervision from the school and from their own school. And the regular school would not be in session, so in terms of traffic or any other concerns, that would not be an issue.

“The dorm, the number of students, the water use — those things were completely aspirational,” Hong continued. “… We want to make clear what our intentions are and not have the planning commission misinterpret what we feel are possibilities versus realities of what we need in terms of using the property.”

Written testimony can be submitted at WPCtestimony@hawaiicounty.gov or at the Hilo or Kona Planning Department up to two business days prior to the hearing by 4:30 p.m.

The public also can provide oral testimony at the meeting via Zoom. To register for access to the Zoom meeting, contact Melissa Dacayanan-Salvador at 961-8156 or Melissa.Dacayanan@hawaiicounty.gov no later than 4:30 p.m. Oct 5.

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The meeting will also be livestreamed for viewing only on YouTube at https://bit.ly/3CcD4Em.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.