Unpermitted gym gets more time to prove it’s safe

  • Agricultural warehouse used as a gym (Hawaii County Planning Department)

A gym that’s been operating without permits in an agricultural shed for almost two years got a reprieve Thursday on an after-the-fact permit after the Leeward Planning Commission asked for inspections.

Kona Aerials Gymnastics moved into the facility at 75-476 Hualalai Road on Jan. 31, 2020. After being served a cease and desist order and fined $6,000 for noncompliance in November, the nonprofit submitted an application for a special use permit to legitimize its operation on agricultural land while it continues to hold classes.

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Kona Aerials holds 20 classes per week, with a current enrollment of 25 team gymnasts and 75 recreational gymnasts. It’s asking for a year to get its permits in order, with a one-year administrative extension, in order to comply with county zoning and building codes.

“Believe me, this is not the first time this has happened in the county and it won’t be the last. … We issue many notices of violation in the county,” said Deputy Planning Director Jeff Darrow. “You either cease and desist or you go through the process. They’re trying to get this permitted through the county. … If that doesn’t work for them then they obviously will have to relocate.”

The 12,600-square-foot warehouse, built in 2019, had a permit as an agricultural warehouse, but no permits for electrical or plumbing. Two restrooms and septic system have also been installed on the property without permits.

To date, no inspections have been conducted except for the slab foundation, a Planning Department staff report said.

A half dozen former gymnastic students, parents and grandparents of students praised the 30-plus-year-old nonprofit and founder Nanette Guiffrida for offering West Hawaii children the benefits of gymnastic competition.

“This organization is a blessing and asset to the Kona community,” said former coach Erin Kuo.

Leah Herbert said her 4-year-old daughter attends classes there, adding, “It would be very sad if Kona Aerials had to close its doors strictly because of a permitting issue.”

But Kona Councilwoman Rebecca Villegas and Janice Palma-Glennie, who closely follows land-use issues, said it’s not that simple. The property owners have been at odds with the neighbors for years, with unpermitted uses including rock crushing operations.

A 2016 lawsuit filed against the planning commission by the Community Association of Hualalai over a contested case hearing on a flood channelization project is still pending before the Hawaii Supreme Court.

“Gymnastics is a great sport for the community. This issue is not about gymnastics and not about them. It’s strictly a land-use issue,” Palma-Glennie said. “These companies are asking for forgiveness rather than permission and it’s not the first time. … As a member of the public, I have a right to know that our land-use laws are enforced.”

Palma-Glennie likened the issue to “sending a cheating child back into the game with a nod and a kiss and maybe a piece of candy.”

The planning commission, concerned about safety for the many children attending the gymnastic classes, asked the applicant to have a structural engineer verify the building is safe and a civil engineer verify the condition of the access road in light of dredging of a riverbed and construction of an earthen berm and culvert to create the road access. The consultant engineers are a stop-gap measure until the required permits can be obtained from the county. The commission will reconsider the special use application once it receives the reports.

The landowners, Daniel and Janet Bolton, have a permit for the riverbed excavation. Neighbors complained about runoff damaging the coral reefs. But commissioners were concerned that heavy equipment and children could be a dangerous mix.

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“Obviously this is the type of project that you desperately want to support because of the services to children in the community. … The hard thing for us is … concerns about safety on the property,” said commission Chairman Michael Vitousek. “In most situations we wouldn’t be comfortable allowing hundreds of kids in a building that we don’t know is safe.”

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

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