Heat rising on Coco Palms spa debate

Saying it wanted more time to study the issue, the Kaua‘i County Planning Commission yesterday voted to defer action on receiving a Planning Department report recommending a denial of Coco Palms Ventures’ proposal for a spa facility at the revitalized Coco Palms Resort.

At a commission meeting at the Lihu‘e Civic Center, a small number of residents also demanded the proposal be denied outright because, they said, it runs contrary to a previously approved commission plan and that the proposed spa should not be allowed in county-designated lands.

“It is designated open and it should remain open,” Elaine Dunbar told the commission.

But John Sakaguchi, a planner with Honolulu consultant Wilson Okamato and Associates, said the recommendation should have been made with proper perspective — that a planning commission in 1985 approved the facility at the same location where it is being proposed today. The spa would be set on old tennis courts.

“We are very surprised … that kind of recommendation,” Sakaguchi said.

Critics say the commission’s rejection of the spa will put it where it is supposed to be — within areas set aside for hotel use. Rejecting the proposal will also protect an area that has high cultural value to Hawaiians. Ancient Hawaiians once inhabited the land currently occupied by the hotel.

On the other hand, representatives for Coco Palms say approval of the plan will help protect the “open feel” of the areas where a reduced number of hotel units — from 104 to 48 — will be put.

But commissioner Randy Nishimura said he did think the spa proposal, after listening to testimony offered so far, would make or break the restoration of the hotel, which was severely damaged by Hurricane ‘Iniki in 1992 and has been closed since.

Once restored, the hotel will be the last hurricane-savaged hotel to be rebuilt. The Coco Palms Hotel, run by the Lyle and Grace Guslander estate, was the flagship hotel of Hawaiian hospitality in the 1950s and 1960s.

A revised spa plan approved by the commission last January allows for the construction of 200 condominium units, 48 cottages, retail shops, restaurants, offices and other improvements.

The developers are seeking a Special Management Area Use permit, a use permit, a variance permit and a Class IV permit for the spa complex.

It includes an entry pavilion, gym, weight room, a lap pool with deck, plunge pools and two tennis courts.

The commission flip-flopped yesterday on whether to receive the Planning Department report recommending denial.

At first, the commissioners wanted to defer because it appeared Wilson Okamoto had not officially received faxed and mailed copies.

In anticipation of Prince Kuhio Day this past Monday, county planner Mike Laureta said he faxed the 13-page report over to the consultant on the afternoon of March 23, and had mailed a copy as well.

While Sakaguchi said his company “didn’t have a record of the fax,” Laureta said he had proof the materials were sent.

“I have got both receipts right here,” Laureta said during the meeting.

He recommended the denial, noting the spa is “clearly an expansion” of the hotel and runs contrary to public statements by Coco Palms representatives that the spa would be placed among planned resort structures.

Laureta also said the proposed expansion of the spa into the open district is “clearly not as outdoor recreation-oriented” as the spa that was approved in 1985.

That proposal called for retaining nine tennis courts and other amenities, while the current proposal calls for two tennis courts and a swimming pool.

He added that proposed spa “is more appropriately located within the Coco Palms Resort campus, rather than in an area not appropriately zoned for such use.”

But Laureta said hope remains for the developers, as they have submitted plans that could involve “re-incorporating” the spa among resort units.

Should the developers continue to pursue the idea of putting an elevated spa on top of old tennis courts, the spa should offer more outdoor recreation-oriented activities, as stated in the open zone district defined in the county’s comprehensive zoning law, he said.

At the same time, Laureta said the spa proposal runs contrary to what the developers had presented during two hotel proposals approved by planning commissions in January 2005 and in January 2006, and contrary to representations by developers promising the spa site for cultural and education purposes.

But commission chairman Ted Daligdig III voiced his displeasure with portions of the report he felt were slanted in favor of the critics.

“Are you trying to slant the report?” Daligdig asked Laureta.

“I was hard-pressed in finding something substantial,” Laureta said.

In speaking for the spa project, Sakaguchi indicated past commission approvals open the door for approval of the latest proposal. “There was a spa approved for that site … and it was part of the entire resort complex, but there was a spa on the open (district),” he said.

But commissioner Steven Weinstein said the commissioner approved the permits for the entire resort project based in part on presentations the spa would be built among the hotel units, not outside of them as proposed today.

“We allowed Coco Palms to be put back on the same footing,” he said. And the feeling among commissioners was that “it should stay the way it was,” he said.

Planning Director Ian Costa echoed that sentiment: “The community supported the construction of what we know.”

While Sakaguchi indicated the proposed spa didn’t meet most of the county requirements for open use, the spa met one — that of providing recreational opportunities.

While the spa plan talked of a private facility, possibly for exclusive use by resort guests, representatives for the developers said the facility would be opened to the public.

To questioning by Nishimura, both critics of the project, Cheryl Lovell-Obtake and Dunbar, said they would not support a smaller project, they don’t want one at all.

The commission will continue deliberating on the spa request on May 8.


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