School’s permit request advances: Planning commission votes 4-1 to support Connections’ project

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A car turns onto Kaumana Drive from Edita Street in Hilo on Thursday.

  • Kelsey Walling/Tribune-Herald A sign protests the proposed Connections Charter School that would be built in the Kaumana neighborhood in Hilo on Thursday.

The Windward Planning Commission voted 4-1 Thursday to forward a favorable recommendation to the state Land Use Commission to grant a special permit for Connections New Century Public Charter School to build a campus on about 70 acres of agricultural-zoned state land in Hilo.

Chairman John Replogle and Commissioners Michelle Galimba, Dennis Lin and Dean Au all voted in favor of forwarding their recommendation to the state land use panel. The lone no vote was cast by Commissioner Joe Clarkson. Commissioner Thomas Raffipiy recused himself and was excused, and Vice Chairman Gilbert Aguinaldo was excused from the meeting prior to the vote.

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The hearing was held on Zoom because of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The matter was remanded back to the county land use panel in February 2020 by the state’s Intermediate Court of Appeals after the school and its board, Community Based Educational Support Services, appealed the commission’s 2014 denial of the Hilo charter school’s permit application.

The school currently operates out of the Kress Building in downtown Hilo. Plans for the campus, which have been in the works since 2006, call for a 30-bed dormitory, gym, cafeteria, library, caretaker’s residence and two parking lots with a total of 140 stalls.

The campus, if built, would support a projected student body of 381 and would have nine phases of construction that would take place in a period of 16-25 years.

Eight neighbors of the proposed project at the corner of Kaumana Drive and Edita Street testified — all in opposition — expressing concerns about traffic, potable water, wastewater runoff and the effect the proposed campus would have on the neighborhood.

“The construction and presence of a facility of this size will adversely change the existing character and nature of the environment of the surrounding community, including, but not limited to, the increased traffic and noise,” Ming Peng said. “I’d also like to add that there is only one way in our out of my subdivision. There is no alternative route for the more than 80 houses that exist there.”

Anna Kennedy said the proposed phased build-out of the campus “would subject all of us from 10 to 26 years of building disturbance, as well as the noise and disturbance of the school.”

Fay Sakata referred to a submitted petition “which showed that of the 106 lots within the Pacific Plantation Subdivision, 90, or 85% oppose the project.”

“One of the criteria for a special permit is whether the use would have an adverse impact on surrounding property,” she said. “The statement from the police department noting its adverse traffic impact, combined with the perceptions and statements of the overwhelming majority of the project’s neighbors, should be sufficient to conclude that the request indeed would have an adverse impact.”

Jeff Gomes, who was the intervenor on the contested case hearing that led to the 2014 permit denial by the commission, called the site “not only inappropriate, but dangerous for students, faculty and the surrounding community.”

“The property is locked by forest with only one way in and out,” he said. “If there’s a fire, live shooter, emergency, people could get trapped. … A yes vote allowing to grant the permit clearly acknowledges that you don’t care about the safety and well-being of the students, faculty and residents of Kaumana, or you didn’t have enough time to review the evidence.”

Jason Turner said he learned about the project “as a D9 bulldozer was knocking down trees and a chicken coop in my yard.”

“Later, I found the school didn’t even have permission to clear the land with a bulldozer and had been required to clear the land by hand,” he said.

Turner also accused school faculty and students of stealing avocados from one of his trees.

“When I asked them to stop, I was told — and I quote — ‘We were teaching the kids about agriculture,’” he said. “So, stealing fruit from their neighbors is teaching the kids about agriculture.”

Turner added the school “consistently ranks as one of the lowest on Hawaii Island, and its students consistently score below the state average.”

“So, why in the world would you give a failing school a permit to build another campus?” he asked. “If you have a child who’s a bad driver and getting into accidents, do you buy him a brand new car?”

Four Connections students — all of whom acknowledged a school, if built, would be for the benefit of future generations and not themselves — testified in favor of the project.

“It kind of saddens me that some of the people here seem to be slandering our school and our students and saying it’s one of the worst schools in Hawaii,” said Sadira Kirkham. “I see what they’re saying from an academic standpoint to some degree because I know the statistics. But I don’t think we have the worst school. I think our school is very unique in the way it teaches, but that’s because our students are unique and everyone is different in their learning.”

Describing herself as disabled, Kirkham said Connections allows her to “learn through my disabilities without feeling like I’m being held back and confined.”

Discussion among commissioners was spirited prior to the vote, with some saying the record as it stands is sufficient for a decision.

Clarkson, however, said he thinks three issues still need to be addressed by both sides: “the public trust, water and traffic — in an updated fashion, I might add.”

Noting the project has been before the commission for nearly a decade and has produced “a very extensive record,” Lin said a decision needed to be made.

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“If it took 10 years to get where we are now, will it take another 10 years to get it to a state that we (find) acceptable to decide this case on?” he said. “It’s 10 years for our community. It’s 10 years for students. It’s 10 years of counting taxpayer dollars for the commission, for the Planning Department, for other departments to review this case.”

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

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