Updated: September 25, 2022
A council committee voted unanimously Wednesday to recommend approval to acquire 257 acres in Māʻalaea for preservation. The only problem is the new owners don’t want to sell it.
Polarizing developer Peter Martin and his West Maui Land Construction and Hope Builders in May purchased the land, unbeknownst to the county and the state, which had voted around the same time to allocate money to purchase the land for conservation.
Previous owner Doug Spencer said the government was too slow so his family decided to sell it to Martin. West Maui Land Construction told Maui Now on Wednesday that it wants to carry out the Spencer family goal of building affordable housing there.
Now Maui County Council is attempting to acquire the land by eminent domain, a legal process where the government takes private property and converts it into public use.
The unanimous vote at council’s Climate Action, Resilience and Environment Committee on Wednesday recommends eminent domain proceedings for the acquisition of 257 acres known as Māʻalaea Mauka, located along Honoapiʻilani Highway, just mauka of Maui Ocean Center, Māʻalaea Shops and Māʻalaea Harbor. Introduced by Council Member Kelly King, whose residency seat covers South Maui, the resolution will now take two readings at full council to make it to the mayor’s desk.
Ryan Grether of West Maui Construction, who is part owner of the land, said the resolution has no merit.
“If you had read my written testimony, hopefully that makes it pretty clear that this will just get tossed out because they do not meet the public interest standard for eminent domain,” he told Maui Now after the meeting. “I’m going to continue working on (housing) plans.”
The resolution doesn’t carry the force and weight of law. It would have to be carried out by the administration, and on Wednesday, Mayor Michael Victorino indicated that he prefers to do things the old-fashioned way.
“I much prefer to have personal discussions with the landowner because I believe eminent domain should be used only as a last resort,” Victorino told Maui Now in a statement. “I have spoken with the landowner and I believe Maui County has a good opportunity to purchase this land without resorting to eminent domain.”
Introduced by Council Member Kelly King, whose residency seat covers South Maui, the resolution for eminent domain received praise Wednesday from environmentalists, who said the land is riddled with frequent fires, sediment loss, erosion concerns and stormwater runoff.
Michael Reyes, Maui Environmental Consulting LLC owner, said the 257 acres is environmentally important. It is a part of Pōhākea watershed, which is 5,268 acres, and portions of the project area have been used as firebreaks.
“It’s right at the inflection point where we have steep mountains meeting coastal plains associated with Māʻalaea Harbor and Māʻalaea Bay,” he said. “This particular land is a perfect place to capture stormwater, to capture sediment, and things of that nature.”
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources had lobbied for the land to be managed by the government, which would implement mitigation efforts for erosion, runoff and fires. The state Board of Land and Natural Resources voted May 13 to approve $1 million, which would be added to the county’s $6.2 million approved May 6 to acquire the land via land trust.
If eminent domain moves forward, the board would have to reconsider the funding, according to Lance De Silva, DLNR Division of Forestry and Wildlife program manager, who testified Wednesday.
“Potentially the money is still there but it would have to go back to the board for approval,” he said. “The way it was approved in concept the first time, it was based on a willing seller.”
“Eminent domain is technically not a willing seller,” he added later.
The Spencer family, regarded as one of Maui’s most accomplished affordable housing developers, had attempted to build housing on the property but didn’t make it past county approvals.
New owner Grether said the Spencers were essentially forced to sell the land because of the county’s red tape.
“The Spencers have a proven track record of building affordable housing, and the county used every dirty trick in the book to block them from doing what I consider to be very good work,” he said.
Grether said that housing design concepts for the area include fire protection, stormwater mitigation and other aspects to address environmental concerns.
“That property represents possibly the best location on the island to do affordable housing,” he said. “We’ve got cheap land, there’s a water system that’s already been built, the Spencers already gave us that gift, and the county just wants to squander that opportunity.”
However, Council Member Yuki Lei Sugimura said during the meeting that if the Spencers had not been able to advance earlier projects, it is unlikely that Martin and West Maui Land Construction will be able to make headway.
“The other thing I just want to say to Mr. Martin is that even if he did get his project together, for him to come before this council and propose a housing project, it might be hard for him to get a pass based upon the science and the reports that we have heard,” she said. “So I would like to urge him to really consider using it for the public good. Although I think the cost was probably a good cost for him to build housing and that’s probably very advantageous but in terms of the best land use, I would like to ask Mr. Martin to please reconsider all of this and march forward with us as a community.”