Promising to drop as many as 12,000 homes on prime agricultural lands between fast-growing Ewa and Kapolei, the Ho‘opili project predictably raised strong objections at practically every step of its lengthy land use entitlement process.
But time and again, the criticism was blunted by an equally staunch collection of supporters who repeatedly testified about how developer D.R. Horton-Schuler Homes is a good neighbor that has responded to the needs and desires of the community — both within Ho‘opili and in the greater West Oahu region.
The lengthy and carefully cultivated community outreach effort by Horton-Schuler was at play Wednesday when the Honolulu City Council gave a final 9-0 vote to rezone 1,554 acres, the final major hurdle facing the project.
In the weeks leading up to Wednesday’s final vote, Horton-Schuler made headlines after donating a 5-acre site within Ho‘opili to the Hawaiian Humane Society for a new shelter and animal services center just off Fort Weaver Road and a 1-acre site to the Waianae Coast Comprehensive Health Center for a medical center. Leaders from both organizations reminded Council members of those gifts when they testified for the project Wednesday.
Also testifying was Ewa Beach resident William Chur, a retired police major, who said Horton-Schuler offered support for Oahu’s Weed and Seed program.
"I’ve seen the power that program has, so I’m very supportive of the developer," he said. "They’re a class act."
It seemed like each time a Ho‘opili opponent warned Council members that the project would cause the loss of prime farmlands and worsen an already intolerable traffic situation, another community member was there to blunt that criticism by touting Horton-Schuler’s civic-minded corporate attitude.
Major development projects that go before the Council for land use approvals typically receive support from construction-related labor unions and other pro-growth interests. While that happened with Ho‘opili, the project received support from other people in the community.
Getting crucial community leaders to buy into the project, however, did not come overnight.
In late 2005, Horton-Schuler began its Ho‘opili Community Task Force that consisted of several dozen community leaders and other civic-minded individuals in the community, said Lee Tokuhara, Horton-Schuler’s community relations director. Members came from throughout the region, including Ewa, Ewa Beach, Makakilo, Kapolei, Waipahu, Kunia and Village Park.
At that point, Tokuhara said, Horton-Schuler’s own plans for the property were fluid.
"We told them, ‘Give us your feedback. What do you want to see? What would you like to see put into this community and for this community to become?’ And they gave us their honest feedback."
As a result, she said, the task force "really helped shape what we have today." Task force members’ main priorities were homes closer to jobs, a more pedestrian- and bike-friendly community and neighborhoods conducive to healthy and sustainable lifestyles, Tokuhara said.
Lifelong Ewa Beach resident Tesha Malama said she was reluctant to support Ho‘opili or any other West Oahu development 10 years ago, when key arterial roads were not connected and other forms of infrastructure were lacking. Those conditions have eased and, as a member of the Ho‘opili task force, she found Horton-Schuler to be responsible and attentive. Community members wanted smaller, multifamily units, she said. The project’s plan now calls for 80 percent of its homes, 9,400 units, to be multifamily dwellings.
The developer hired Bennet Group, a Honolulu public relations firm, to help with the task force as well as other community relations efforts. According to Bennet’s own website, the company "manages Ho‘opili’s entire community relations effort, which entails building support throughout the community using various communications tools, including monthly e-newsletters, website management and media relations."
Input from the task force and others in the community also helped Horton-Schuler tackle its two main criticisms — the loss of agricultural lands and ever-lingering traffic worries.
While Aloun Farms and other agriculture interests will make way for houses, Horton-Schuler agreed to set aside 200 acres from the 1,554-acre site for commercial farming. Ho Farms took over 60 acres last year and Horton-Schuler has even created a spiffy logo and brand for crops grown in the region — "Grown in Ho‘opili."
As for Aloun and the other displaced farmers, Horton-Schuler contributed $500,000 toward the $25 million purchase of the Galbraith Estate, the former site of Del Monte’s pineapple fields, in Central Oahu. Horton-Schuler’s website said the developer also promised to provide an additional $500,000 to "assist with soil preparation and infrastructure for farming." Aloun and other farms have been moving their operations there.
Kevin Rathbun, chairman of the Ewa Neighborhood Board, which gave the project unanimous support, said with Ewa homebuilders Gentry Homes and Haseko having developed more than half, if not more, of their housing projects, his community is in need of new partners.
"I consider D.R. Horton-Schuler to be a good community partner," Rathbun said. "I look at D.R. Horton as a 25-year partner in the community. And anything we can get a community partner to do is one less we’ve got to beg the government for."
The developer has not been hesitant to help where it can, throwing financial support behind everything from West Oahu’s annual job fair to nonprofit groups such as the Boys and Girls Club of Hawaii and U.S. VETS, he said.
Not all neighborhood boards have been supportive of Ho‘opili. The Makakilo/Kapolei/Honokai Hale Neighborhood Board voted to withdraw its earlier vote of support for the project following a major shakeup in its lineup last year.
Ho‘opili opponents view the large-scale community outreach with skepticism.
Kioni Dudley, president of the group Friends of Makakilo, said the developer "got their friends together and began to organize their campaign."
The public relations onslaught was so great that Council members didn’t want to fully absorb and comprehend the impacts of the loss of prime farmlands and the 12,000-plus cars the project will bring, Dudley said.
"They didn’t want to hear anything negative," he said, stating that most Council members refused to meet with him to hear his group’s concerns. "They just wanted to get the job done before the people became aware. It was stunning."
Like other project opponents on Wednesday, Dudley suggested that political contributions by the developer and its top employees may have helped pave Horton-Schuler’s path to rezoning.
A review of Campaign Spending Commission reports during the last election cycle shows Horton-Schuler executives contributed to the campaign committees of Mayor Kirk Caldwell, whose planning director recommended approval of the project, and eight of the nine current Council members.
The reports show Caldwell received $8,400 from Horton-Schuler executives while Council Chairman Ernie Martin received $6,500. As for the other Council members: Ikaika Anderson received $2,000; Brandon Elefante, $200; Carol Fukunaga, $1,750; Joey Manahan, $1,500; Ron Menor, $700; Trevor Ozawa, $1,500 and Kymberly Pine, $1,500.
Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi was the only Council member to not receive campaign contributions from Horton-Schuler executives. But like several other colleagues, Kobayashi filed a disclosure statement that said she is friends with Horton Vice President Cameron Nekota and his mother. And like other colleagues, Kobayashi received contributions in the last election cycle from an attorney and a planner who are working on Ho‘opili.
U.S. citizens can be involved in the political process regardless of where they are employed, a fact emphasized by Horton-Schuler in a statement to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.
"As private citizens, D.R. Horton Hawaii employees are free to support the public servants they believe in, whether through volunteerism or financial contributions," the developer said in an email.
Dudley noted that labor unions and other pro-development interests who testified for the project also contributed to the campaign coffers of the mayor and Council members.