Kilauea estate vote in June

Attorneys yesterday streamlined a quasi-judicial hearing over a California resident’s plan to build an estate on environmentally and culturally significant land on the North Shore.

The county Planning Commission must decide whether to approve the zoning, use and special management area permits that Charles Somers needs for a proposed 8,700-square-foot single-story home, 2,600-square-foot barn and 1,400-square-foot caretaker’s cottage on a knoll overlooking Kilauea Stream. The project’s overall footprint on the narrow 166-acre property is roughly 35,000 square feet, which includes lanais and landscaping.

The contested case hearing was closed after the third all-day session on the matter in three months at the Mo‘ikeha Building. It featured another round of expert witnesses who testified on the impact that the structures could have on the fragile ecosystem and possible mitigative measures.

The commission’s findings of fact, conclusions of law, decision and order is due June 16. Final arguments are slated for June 24. The public will be allowed to comment before the seven-member body votes on the permits.

Attorneys expedited the hearing by stipulating to witnesses’ written testimony, thereby avoiding the need to orally draw those arguments out before the commission.

Discussion focused in large part on community members’ ongoing efforts to secure funding to acquire the parcel, known as Kilauea Falls Ranch, for incorporation into a Congress-approved plan to expand Kilauea Wildlife Refuge.

Somers, a self-made businessman, remained open to selling the land at a fair market price until it became clear that the necessary funding to buy the property was nowhere in sight, according to Sacramento resident Kevin Webb.

Webb, who is working with Somers on a Big Island project, said he was on-island yesterday to assist his partner through the permitting process.

“We understand our opposition and we’re trying to respect the community,” he said. “We’ve gone over and above on everything we’ve designed so far. We’re always open for discussion.”

Attorney Peter Morimoto represented intervenor Elizabeth Freeman, who lives in the Kilauea River valley.

He said the proposed development fails to meet the prescribed state law requirements for such environmentally protected land and the structures would wreck cherished views.

Somers’ attorneys have said that landscaping will shield viewplanes and no other location on the sloping property makes sense to build.

Webb said there would be a “net benefit” to the area in part because Somers has agreed to limit the development to this project despite being allowed more than 30 units.

The property is zoned agricultural, but its development is further restricted with overlaid open and special management area zoning.

Witnesses yesterday included a local botanist, hydrologist, wildlife manager, historian and long-time Kilauea resident.

Attorney Max Graham, representing Somers, cross-examined each person in courtlike fashion.

Mike Hawkes, who manages the Kilauea refuge, run under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, highlighted key concerns over the impact the proposed development would have on “prime, undeveloped habitat.”

He said the house site is ideal for nene, a recovering endangered species predominantly found on Kaua‘i. He estimated 300 of the 1,300 nene worldwide are found at Kilauea Point.

The efforts to buy the Somers property, a strip which skirts Kilauea Stream, have been in full swing since December 2004 when the president signed the bill authorizing the refuge expansion, Hawkes said.

The proposed expansion is now number two on the region’s priority list for federal funding, he said, noting that groups from the private sector are also searching for funding sources.

Hawkes estimated that the current value of the property, which Somers bought in 2004 for roughly $6.5 million, is probably nearing $8 million.

Under the congressional act to expand the refuge, Graham noted the seller must be willing and the property can not be sold for more than it was appraised. If the seller is unwilling, he said, the only option for government to acquire the property is through condemnation.

“Would you want someone to just wait until government figures it out?” county planner Michael Laureta asked Hawkes during the Planning Department’s turn to cross-examine.

After acknowledging that Somers plans to protect known archaeological features and curb invasive species, historian Andy Bushnell said “the estate just doesn’t fit … it’s a wild place.”

The site retains historical significance in part because of its past use as a landing site decades ago when the sugar industry was thriving, he said.

Kawika Winter, director of Limahuli Garden and Preserve, said requiring best management practices would help alleviate his issues with soil erosion during construction, but he remained concerned about the agroforestry plan.

• Nathan Eagle, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 224) or neagle@kauaipubco.com

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