Gov. Neil Abercrombie told North Shore conservationists Wednesday night that he would take an active role in the debate over the future of Turtle Bay Resort, but made no financial commitment given the state’s tight budget.
At a talk story session hosted by the Koolauloa North Shore Alliance — a coalition of interest groups that formed after former Gov. Linda Lingle said the state should acquire and preserve the undeveloped land around the resort — the governor said he would involve his state Department of Land and Natural Resources in the effort.
"I do not want to give any indication that the state is going to bail anybody out," Abercrombie said, citing cuts to Medicaid and other programs to contain costs.
"We have serious funding situations that we have to address."
The governor sat on a panel at Sunset Beach Elementary School with conservationists, a representative from Replay Resorts and a consultant who will prepare a supplemental environmental impact statement on the resort’s latest development plans.
Drew Stotesbury, asset manager for Replay Resorts, said the resort developer is working on a plan with less density than the one that disappointed conservationists when it was unveiled earlier this year. Replay Resorts has already said it would not pursue the five new hotels with 3,500 new rooms and condominium units favored by previous investors and owners.
Stotesbury said Replay wants to be responsive to the community while also ensuring that the development plan provides the owners with a reasonable return on investment.
Abercrombie cautioned that the value of the land is "wildly overstated" without the development rights. Early price tags after the state expressed interest in acquiring the land put the value at $200 million to $400 million.
The state has the option of condemning the property through eminent domain, but the governor appeared more interested in public-private partnerships to protect agricultural land and areas near the shoreline from development.
A tentative agreement between the developer and the Trust for Public Land already in the works would preserve more than 400 acres of agricultural land.
"Eminent domain is not imminent," Abercrombie said. "But if we get to that point, these numbers in the hundreds of millions of dollars (are) nonsense."
Abercrombie also said that while the city oversees permitting and has the task of evaluating the environmental review, "nothing is going to happen here absent the approval of the governor, I can assure you of that."
Lee Sichter, the consultant who will prepare the environmental review, said the goal is to have the draft completed by the end of the year with the final version delivered to the city in early 2012.
The 21⁄2-hour meeting gave conservationists the chance to tell the governor their concerns about the impact of new development on traffic congestion, infrastructure and the quality of life in a region struggling to preserve what is left of country attitude.
Abercrombie said the debate should not just be about the adults who have the means to live on the North Shore, but also their children, who will need jobs and housing so they can live in the country in the future.
"We have to think about these kids," he said. "I don’t want us in a situation where as adults who are satisfied with what we have now, that we neglect to figure out what will the North Shore be like 15 to 20 years from now.
"Do we want our children and grandchildren here with jobs and futures and careers and families and the satisfaction of the North Shore? Where are they going to work? And where are they going to live?"
The governor said any plan to further develop Turtle Bay should include work-force housing — a comment greeted by silence from an otherwise responsive audience dominated by people in green "Keep the Country Country" T-shirts.
The mood of the evening, however, was captured by a Sunset Beach Elementary student who told the governor about how her mother was reluctant to take her to the movies in Mililani on weekends because it is such a hassle to fight the traffic. She recalled meeting a tourist at Shark’s Cove who told her how lucky she was to live on the North Shore.
"Once you take away the country," she told Abercrombie, "you can never get it back."