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LONA RIDGE – Next chapter heard in long running Wailuku Heights land use dispute

Susan Grubbs, a Wailuku Heights resident shows a map of Wailuku Heights properties. Those colored pink are property owners opposed to granting a permit for commercial use in a residential area.
The long running dispute between the residents of Wailuku Heights – who object to commercial use in a residential area and their neighbor Leona Rocha Wilson – who has applied to host commercial events at her palatial home at the top of Kulaiwi Drive played out again yesterday at the Land Use Committee of the Maui County Council.

The committee heard the request for a special use permit from Wilson for her property known as “Lona Ridge” located on 5.75 acres at 588 Kulaiwi Drive. It can only be reached by a road which runs through the Wailuku Heights subdivision. Wailuku Heights, a quiet upscale neighborhood Central Maui neighborhood, has long standing restrictive covenants against commercial use.

Photo: Don Bloom / Tropical Light

The permit, if approved would become a county ordinance allowing the applicant to conduct for-profit special events including “wedding, corporate and non-profit receptions, workshops, art shows, photography sessions, filming and similar events as well as Hawaiian cultural practices, within the county agricultural district” on her land for one year.

On the agenda as LU-23 the council heard testimony from 55 Mauians who were almost evenly divided for and against the application.

Those testifying in favor of the permit were enthusiastic in their endorsement of Wilson as a gracious hostess and inspiring example for young people. They included parents, youth, senior citizens, members of veterans groups, members of her own family, teachers of Hawaiian dance, those interested in farming and native Hawaiian plants, educators, including Richard Paul – the principal of Hana High and Elementary School, and Wilson’s next door neighbor Rebecca Armato, who said she was “in support” of the permit. Armato’s home is within 30 feet of the Wilson property on three sides. Of those who testified in favor, very few, except Armato lived in the neighborhood.

Also testifying in favor of the permit was Marseu Simpson who had previously been retained by Wilson to develop and market agricultural tours, an activity already allowed by the property’s current agricultural zoning. Simpson distributed copies of a colorful rack card, brochure, and inserts that advertised “Maui’s most glorious estates and one of a kind botanical architectural and historical tour.” Rates for a one hour guided tour by appointment were set at $25 per person in the brochure and $75 per person on the rack card. It was not clear from the material if these were two different tours or two different prices for the same tour.

Simpson testified that though she initially helped prepare the collateral promotional material and took Wilson to meet with concierges and other personnel at a variety of hotels and resorts, the attempt to market the property through “farm tours” was put on the back burner because Wilson felt that it encouraged too much traffic and did not give her enough control over who came on her property and that she (Wilson) had decided to go the special permit route in consideration of the neighbors.

Almost all of those who testified against the permit were Wailuku Heights residents who opposed commercial use in an entirely residential neighborhood.

Their reasons included retaining the peace and tranquility of their homes, fears about safety, crime, wear and tear on their roads, drunken driving, concerns that their neighborhood would become another tourist destination.

As a group they conveyed a general sense sense of being frustrated, bullied and fed up with the prima dona behavior of Wilson – who was described in unflattering terms by dozens who had attempted to come to terms with her as she carved her “farm” out of the side of the mountain, an area they had been led to believe was conservation land and would never be developed. Many testified to enduring years of noise and dust while the huge home was built. They now vigorously objected to the proposed commercial use in violation of the CC&Rs of their subdivision.

One compelling speaker in opposition to the project was Susan Grubbs, a Wailuku Heights resident with a home on Kulaiwi Drive who showed the council a map of the subdivision with the lots of those who opposed the granting of the permit colored in pink. Grubb said the total in opposition was the overwhelming majority of subdivision property owners in Wailuku Heights II and Wailuku Heights I. Grubbs provided substantial documentation showing that those colored in pink did indeed oppose the application and knew what they were opposing.

Not to be outdone, Wilson, provided her own map which showed the same map with some of the area colored in pink “in opposition,” but a good many colored in green, which the applicant said were “in support.” Grubbs contested the Wilson map saying that no evidence of the support had been provided and that the applicant had colored simply in what ever was not in opposition label it as being “in support.”

Also compelling in his testimony against the permit was Lester Yano, a Wailuku Heights homeowner and retired attorney, who represented the homeowners. He said that he and others had been the object of “threats and harassment.”

Yano and others said the neighborhood endured the dust and noise for over four years while the property was constructed and now faced further encroachment by the proposed commercial use. He said the neighborhood only wanted the former peace and tranquility of the area back and called on the county to clarify if they would have to go to court to enforce the CC&Rs or whether the council could grant them relief?

Yano pointed out that even though the lot that was part of the subdivision was a small portion of the entire property, that it was part and parcel of the commercial activity and expressly prohibited by the CCRs. If Wilson and her guests did access the home by using the driveway on the subdivision lot then it would not be possible for anyone to access the larger upper portion of the property.

Yano’s wife also testified that her husband had devoted hundreds of hours to seek some kind of remedy to what they felt were abuses of the applicant. Mrs. Yano said and she not only wanted the peace and quiet back but “I want my husband back too.”

A comment made by Planning Commissioner Keaka Robinson at an earlier Planning Commission meeting related to Lona Ridge permits seemed to sum up the feeling of the neighborhood a nutshell:

Commissioner Robinson said he had “the feeling that you (Mrs. Wilson) really are not listening to your neighbors. I know you’re local. I know you’re a winner. You are. In life, you’ve won. But sometimes, us winners, we don’t listen. Sometimes us winners are so used to winning that nothing in front of us stops us…and I think that might be what’s happening now…..I wouldn’t want to drive up that street and have to look straight ahead and not look at my neighbors because them giving me stink eye for the rest of my life” he said.

Despite the contentious nature of the current and prior testimony, the members of the committee were neither buffaloed nor overawed by either side.

The meeting began a little after 9 am. Listening to the testimony of the applicant and the public were Chair Robert Carroll, and members Elle Cochran, Stacy Crivello, Kelly King, Yuki Lei Sugimura, who were joined at 9:50 by Mike White. Excused were Don Guzman, Alika Atay and Riki Hokama (attending an out of town meeting on county business).

Following the public testimony, the committee began their deliberations which included questions about the prior history of the permit which had previously been heard and approved by the Planning Commission during meetings in August and October of 2016.

In October the County Planning Commission voted 6-1 to approve permits for Wilson, but reduced her original request substantially both in the number of events which could be held – which they pegged at 15 and the number of people who could attend – which was set at 65 between the hours of 8 am and 8 pm They also attached over 20 conditions to the permits. These included that only beer and wine be served, and only licensed staff serve alcohol, that guests be shuttled to events that serve alcohol, no open flames except for candles and tiki torches, no pyrotechnics, applicant shall keep a registered guest list, no drones or helicopters shall be used by guests and that shall be contained in the contracts, no illegal drugs shall be used on property and such use shall result in immediate removal from the property and that shall also be in the contract.

With respect to the council’s role in enforcing the CC&Rs, and whether the CC&Rs were actually applicable to Lona Ridge, council members heard conflicting testimony.

The applicant and her attorney Deborah Wright of the firm Wright and Kirschbraun asserted that they were not applicable.

James Giroux, an attorney for the Office of the Corporation Counsel who advises the Land Use Committee gave a somewhat different opinion. He provided information about “contract law” explaining that the CC&Rs are “a private contract” that takes precedence over the county ordinance, but that disputes in this area are decided usually by a judge and not by the county.

He said making any predictions or assumptions in this area are a “rabbit hole” and indicated that he could not make any determination without seeing the deed. The thrust of his explanation seemed to be that if the CC&Rs are in the deed then they are enforceable, however, it is the homeowners, not the county who have to take actions and go to court to enforce them.

Clarification as to what Wilson could legally do on an ag property was provided by Deputy Planning Director Michele Chouteau McLean. She told the committee no permits of any kind are needed and there is no limitation on the hours of operation or the number of people who can participate in farm tours and no limit on what can be charged for these tours.

She also said that the agricultural designation allowed up to two different 1,000 sq./ft. restaurants/ markets/logo shops.

As for what Wilson can do at her own “farm dwelling” as a private citizen, Mclean said she can have as many people over whenever she wants.

Additionally, If granted the conditional use permit Wilson could also host commercial events of the number and kind allowed by the permit.

Mclean advised the committee that the conditional permit sought from the council has to agree in all particulars with the terms authorized by the Planning Commission or else the matter would have to go back to the Planning Commission for further review. The permit can not take effect until it is authorized by both the commission and the Council.

With respect to the actual designation of the 5.75-acre property, McLean said the portion of the site with access from Kulaiwa Drive was the 0.25-acre lot that was part of the Wailuku Heights II subdivision. The remainder of the site, approx 5.5 acres was agricultural land. This agricultural site is the location of the applicant’s home, technically classified as a “farm dwelling” and her nearby agricultural pursuits. The home occupies a little over an acre while the agricultural use consisting of 300 koai’a trees, 100 koa trees, and other native Hawaiian plants are on the remainder of the site. McClean also confirmed that these two separate parcels were subsequently consolidated into one parcel.

Councilmember Cochran raised questions that seemed to indicate that Wilson has already booked and conducted weddings at her home and received payment prior to receiving a permit. McClean confirmed that there had already been several notices of violation sent.

Rowena Dagdag-Andaya, Deputy Director of Public Works also clarified the width of the road at Kulaiwi entrance to the property, saying it was sufficient and that the condition of the road was also sufficient to handle the traffic that might be generated.

In the late afternoon, Chairman Carroll recessed the meeting to be resumed until July 27, at 9 am in council chambers. At that time council members will continue their deliberations. No further public testimony will be taken.

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About Susan Halas

Susan Halas is a Senior Political Contributor at MAUIWatch. She has followed Hawaii politics since 1976 when she moved to the Valley Isle. She was formerly a staff writer for the Maui News as well as other local print and digital publications.

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