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Friday, November 21, 2014         

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Crowd resists Mililani housing project

A neighborhood board meeting is populated by many who strongly oppose Meheula Vista

By Andrew Gomes

POSTED:

Don't add more homes to Mililani Mauka.

That was the message area residents gave to the Mililani Mauka/Launani Valley Neighborhood Board at a boisterous meeting Tuesday night.

More than 25 residents, including some hollering from an audience of roughly 150 people, objected to a developer's plan to build 301 affordable rental apartments for seniors on a vacant site previously slated for commercial use.

Board members failed to pass a motion on the project called Meheula Vista after hearing more than two hours of testimony — often pierced by interruptions and applause — imploring them to follow the wishes of those who spoke out.

"Where's our leadership?" asked a woman, shouting from the crowd after board members split on a motion to oppose the project.

Five votes were needed from the nine-member board to pass the motion, which became challenging after two board members left the meeting early. Two other members were absent.

Of the remaining members, three opposed the project, one was for it and Chairman Dean Hazama abstained, though he had expressed reluctance to vote against affordable housing for seniors.

"I have a hard time not supporting a senior project," Hazama said just before the vote. "We need those types of facilities in our communities."

A recommendation by the board is something that can influence whether the project gets city and state approvals, though it doesn't determine whether Meheula Vista will be authorized.

The City Council and the state's Hawaii Housing Finance & Development Corp. both plan public hearings on the project.

The City Council will consider exemptions to impact fees, but not a zoning change because affordable housing under state rules is exempt from zoning.

HHFDC, a state agency that facilitates affordable-housing development, has already approved a $9.7 million loan for the developer to buy the land and pay for design work. The developer intends to seek additional agency funding for construction.

Much testimony on Tuesday focused on the fact that Castle & Cooke, which developed Mililani Mauka as a master-planned community, long reserved the 7.5-acre site for a performing arts center and businesses.

"We have to hold Castle & Cooke's feet to the fire and get them to do the right thing," said Esme Infante Nii, a longtime Mililani Mauka resident who serves on the board of the nonprofit trying to develop the Oahu Arts Center.

Castle & Cooke representatives told the audience that commercial tenant interest in the site vanished after Walmart opened in Mililani in 1994 and Costco opened in Waipio in 1998.

Meanwhile, Oahu Arts Center failed to meet a deadline to demonstrate it had financial means to build and operate the center, according to Castle & Cooke, though the nonprofit disputes this claim.

Castle & Cooke officials also reminded residents at the meeting that it always stated that master plans may change. In fact, the company built about 300 fewer homes in Mililani Mauka than it originally intended because there was more demand for single-family homes than townhomes.

"Master plans have to change," said Castle & Cooke Senior Vice President Richard Mirikitani, noting that it took 40 years to build Mililani and Mililani Mauka. The first home at Mililani Mauka was finished in 1991. Completion of the last home was celebrated in 2008.

Castle & Cooke has an agreement to sell the vacant site to local affordable housing developer Gary Furuta of GSF LLC for about $7 million.

Furuta in July presented a preliminary site plan for 226 low-income rental apartments, including some possibly for seniors.

The neighborhood board at that time opposed the project with eight votes. There also was one abstention.

Furuta then amended the plan by adding 74 units but restricting all units to seniors and limiting the number of tenants who have a car to 102. The change was meant to address traffic and school impact concerns.

The developer also partnered with Catholic Charities Hawaii, which would own and manage the project for a minimum of 60 years as rentals for seniors earning no more than 60 percent of Oahu's median income.

Rents for Meheula Vista are projected to be around $700 a month and attract seniors mostly in their 70s and up.

Some residents ridiculed the idea that tenants could be restricted from having a car, and said Mililani Mauka doesn't have grocery stores and other businesses to which seniors can conveniently walk.

"I don't care how much lipstick you put on a project," said Bo Aki. "The bottom line is we can't handle any more housing."

Others chimed in, calling for "No more residential" and "Give us something we can use." A big sign read "Say no 300 apartments here." No Mililani residents testified in support of the project.

At times, audience members got testy, especially during an explanation from Catholic Charities Hawaii President and Chief Executive Officer Jerry Rauckhorst.

"I don't care about your organization," shouted one man in the audience, interrupting Rauckhorst.

Others lauded Catholic Charities for good work, but said Mililani Mauka was the wrong place for it.

Rauckhorst said Mililani Mauka would be the first site for a senior rental complex developed for Catholic Charities — and could be a model that helps a population vulnerable to the high cost of Hawaii housing.

"When we think about the homeless we don't often think about seniors," he said, explaining that 12,000 seniors on Oahu live at the poverty level. "That's an alarming level."

After the vote, residents upset with the result promised to return to next month's neighborhood board meeting. "We're not going anywhere," one person called out.

"We're going to have more people next time," vowed another.






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