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Turtle Bay reset welcome

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However anyone feels about the proposed expansion at Turtle Bay Resort —  and there’s no shortage of strong feelings here — at the very least the discussion soon can be illuminated with more new information than what a 26-year-old planning document could provide.

At last, that document, the original environmental impact statement for the expansion, will be resuscitated with a court-ordered supplemental EIS.

So much has changed since the 1985 date-stamp on the original that its accounting of the project’s effects is riddled with holes.The area’s development plan is being revised by the city, and that will provide the basis for the supplemental.

But on another track, the development process already is revived. Last week the project’s new owners — a group of 20 investment firms still operating under the banner of its predecessor, Kuilima Resort Co. — made a concession to community opponents by scaling down the proposed expansion. Instead of the 3,500 rooms and condominium units, Kuilima is now proposing a total of 2,345, eliminating units especially around the sensitive Kawela Bay area as well as those planned near Kahuku Point.

This is an auspicious beginning, but not an end, of course. A robust conversation must continue with the community over how the development should proceed, and, encouragingly, the developers seem willing to do that. Drew Stotesbury, asset manager for the property, told Star-Advertiser writer Andrew Gomes that further reductions could follow.

The case of Turtle Bay is one of the myriad cases in Hawaii that showcase how growth plans can start well and veer into irrationality. The process 30 years ago did include community discussions and, partly due to the lagging economy at the time, many residents favored the expansion, hoping for job opportunities. The problem was that the City Council approved a unilateral agreement in 1986 that authorized the project, complete with the five new hotels and 3,500 rooms.

But progress stalled on the project and 20 years later, Oaktree Capital Management LLC tried to exercise that option. The Council seemed powerless to stop it, as ludicrous as it seemed to base a project on studies a quarter-century out of date.

Community and environmental opponents took up the charge, thankfully, and it took a 2010 Hawaii Supreme Court decision to declare what seems obvious to most people: An EIS is not evergreen.

Now that the planning is starting anew, residents are voicing concerns that even the reduced number of units will generate traffic that would overtax the North Shore’s modest highway and road network. That perception must be tested fully in the new EIS, as well as environmental impacts unanticipated in 1985, such as endangered monk seals since found in the area and the current laws regulating the disturbance of Hawaiian burials.

All the components of the project need vetting. Many residents favor the jobs that hotel development would bring during yet another lagging economy. But whether the visitor market could sustain this much additional resort inventory, and whether local residents can afford much of the housing, should be questioned.

At least now the reset button has been pushed, and the answers won’t be based on information that’s older than many of the people asking the questions.

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