Decision deferred after new proposal

The county Planning Commission was expected to decide whether a Kilauea property owner could build an upscale house on environmentally sensitive land, but everything changed when a new proposal was unveiled Tuesday at the Mo‘ikeha Building.

After hearing arguments from each side, the seven-member commission voted to defer final decision-making on the required use permits until July 22.

Friends describe the applicant, California resident Charles Somers, as a self-made businessman who wants to build a home on his 161-acre property overlooking Kilauea Stream and the Pacific Ocean.

But critics — which include neighbors such as the intervenor in the case, Elizabeth Freeman, and environmental advocates — point at the potential consequences to endangered species habitat and the “obscene” size of the “farm dwelling unit,” as it is identified at the county Planning Department.

Agroforestry plans aside, the application sought permits to build an 8,700-square-foot single-story home, 2,600-square-foot barn and 1,400-square-foot caretaker’s cottage — bringing the project’s overall footprint to roughly 35,000 square feet, including lanais and landscaping, pools and ponds.

But lawyer Max Graham, who represents Somers, said his client is now willing to give up 80 acres of his property by way of a conservation easement and nix the barn and caretaker’s cottage.

He estimated a 20 percent reduction in overall grading, which addresses a planning department concern, and noted the sacrifice of 16 units allowable under zoning rules controlling density.

“This proposal now is not out of keeping with what has been allowed and what I assume will occur in the future in the Open STR District,” Graham said.

He also said Somers is willing to pave Kahili Quarry Road down to the parking lot adjacent to the beach “for more and greater recreational opportunities.” The dirt road is currently in poor condition nearly requiring a four-wheel-drive vehicle to access — something some residents have complained about in their testimonies to the commission.

The announcement caught the commission off guard and some of the roughly 20 community members seated in the audience, but seemed old news to others.

“It was a surprise to me,” Commission Chair Steven Weinstein said. “It changed the way some of us were going to decide.”

Attorney Peter Morimoto, who represents Freeman, called on the commission to defer its decision in light of the new information.

“This is something that’s being sprung on us at the 11th hour,” he said. “We’re basically scrambling to respond to this. Is that fair? In my perspective, it’s not. It’s unsettling.”

Morimoto said he did not believe the rules allowed the commission to question the applicant’s representative, Sacramento resident Kevin Webb, on the new proposal since the contested case hearing was closed.

The commission was supposed to decide on the permits based on the testimony and information from the public hearing as contained in the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Decision and Order submitted by each party on June 16, he said.

“My client’s due process rights are being violated,” Morimoto said, noting the commission accepting testimony from someone he could not cross-examine.

Weinstein said the commission’s role is to look at ways to find an agreement so it can approve the permits, and if unable to do so, then deny them. Further questioning is part of this, he said, but eventually stopped the proceedings.

Graham said he failed to see a problem discussing the new decision and order he presented, albeit after the deadline, but supported a four-week deferral to talk with the parties to try to arrive at a resolution.

The new proposal garnered support from most of the community members who testified.

Kapa‘a resident Fred Levinthol said he supports the project but after hearing Morimoto make his closing arguments urging the commission to deny the permits, said, “I kind of want to go home and tear down my house and plant some trees.”

Bruce Laymon, along with some others who commented, said if every project went through the scrutiny Morimoto wants, nothing would be approved.

He said the new proposal is “one of the most sizable donations I’ve seen in my lifetime on Kaua‘i.”

Laymon also questioned why Freeman owns a home in the vicinity if she is intervening in the case.

“What in the world is your client’s house doing where it is?” he said, noting its ability to contribute to runoff and similar concerns aired during the hearings.

Freeman could not be reached for comment yesterday. Morimoto declined to comment.

Other Kilauea community members said Somers bought the property knowing it was a special treatment area and “the hoops he had to jump through.”

“You’re dealing in dreams and promises,” Dorothy Yadao said. “Why there?”

“It’s a hotel,” Rodney Yadao said. “It’ll be a bad precedent.”

Other residents, such as Michael Kaplan, supported improving beach access and the land donation but called the house size “ridiculous” and “quite excessive.”

County planner Michael Laureta said the proposed house is “by no means the largest one out there.”

Beryl Blaich, who is among a group of residents who have searched for several years to find funding to buy the Somers parcel and have it incorporated into a Congress-approved plan to expand Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, said there is not much left on Kaua‘i that can be preserved.

“We are all worried about it,” she said.

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

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