On Sept. 11, 1992, hurricane Iniki struck Kauai and caused nearly $2 billion in damage to properties on our island.
Many properties were so damaged they were unrepairable. In most cases, owners of such property were good citizens and tore down the damaged structures and either rebuilt or restored the property to pre-development condition. However, for 23 year, our citizens have endured the eyesore and safety hazard of the Waipouli resort, known as Coco Palms. For many, the irresponsible conduct of the Coco Palms owners in allowing the damaged structures to remain has overwhelmed the nostalgia with which our older citizens viewed the pleasant gathering spot that Coco Palms was before that eventful September day.
Over the years since Iniki, several organizations have sought Kauai governmental approvals for rebuilding Coco Palms. All have faltered. Currently, it is the Coco Palms Hui. Earlier this year, our Planning Commission decided it wanted to defer any approvals until an evaluation was made as to how restoration of the resort would affect the traffic congestion that now afflicts the Kapaa-Lihue corridor. While nothing of substance emerged in this regard, the Planning Commission recently reversed itself, as it has been known to do, and approved six votes to none redevelopment plans. Mr. Brad Waters, spokesman for the Hui, said that the facility could reopen by spring 2017.
As we all well know traffic problems in the Kapaa-Lihue corridor on which Coco Palms is located are at times critical because of the inadequacy of our roadways. But the Planning Commission has no adequate authority to deny project building approvals because of infrastructure limitations. So it takes the easy way out and authorizes construction of facilities that will certainly adversely overtax our roadways. And for projects like Coco Palms not involving rezoning, the council has no regular power of review.
Alleviation of our traffic woes is difficult and, as participation by all three levels of government is needed, time consuming. The highway system problem on Kauai is typical. Planning is necessary and then funds must be found. Whether the solution proposed for the Kapaa-Lihue congestion is widening the existing Kuhio Highway, construction of a cane road extension across the Wailua River or some other alternative, it is not reasonable to expect highway improvement before the date of the projected completion for the Coco Palms project estimated by Mr. Waters occurs.
Our people would have been protected against developments such as Coco Palms, which overburdened infrastructure by a 2008 charter amendment, but that safeguard was frittered away in an ineffective defense by our county attorney’s office in a lawsuit challenging it. Earlier this year, I suggested to a key council member that the council should adopt an ordinance requiring a finding by the council that the infrastructure was sufficient as a condition precedent to the council allowing any significant new residential construction. No action has been taken on this useful idea.
If our county is to have intelligent growth, it is vital that we have a resourceful and active council willing to act on the necessary programs for a successful conclusion when new developments such as Coco Palms are proposed. We cannot continue on. The destructive path we have thoughtlessly followed in the past of optimistically approving the projects and hoping that our roads and other facilities will be adequate to serve them. It may or may not be of benefit to our county to restore Coco Palms, but our priority must be to have a traffic solution for the Kapaa-Lihue corridor in place first.
To make this change our council (and our administration if we get a manager system) will need to be much more politically successful to justify and obtain funding for a better roadway system and also to be able to prevent developments until the requisite facilities are complete.
Is it realistic to expect that our council will do what’s necessary to achieve an organized and coordinated growth for our island? I don’t know, but it could be if our elected council members recognize that it is their function to serve the important issues of our society rather than dissipating energies in pursuit of matters of lesser importance. Dedicated and focused leadership is urgent and we can only hope that it will be forthcoming.
Walter Lewis is a retired attorney who lives on Kauai and writes a regular column for The Garden Island.