On the slopes of a Kaneohe promontory prized for its ocean views, more than 1,000 trees
including milo, mango, kukui, weeping banyan and silver trumpet have stood for decades as part of a lush hillside — and a knotty problem.
Under a special city ordinance, these trees are supposed to be maintained by one of Hawaii’s biggest residential condominium communities.
But many of the specimens are gone.
Recently, the city Department of Planning and Permitting issued a violation notice to the Puu Alii Community Association for cutting down “numerous” trees in one area, and said the community of condo owners hasn’t complied with landscaping rules since the the 540-home complex on about 50 acres was approved for development in 1975.
The missing trees noted by DPP — Formosan koa, Java plum, Mindanao gum and white monkeypod — were removed from a slope below a couple of condo buildings in the community fronting Lilipuna Road.
And this wasn’t the first time protected trees have been cut down around Puu Alii, though an accounting of how many trees have been removed in violation of the ordinance over more than four decades could not be obtained.
According to documents from the community association and DPP, tree removals around Puu Alii have been a chronic problem related to special conditions of a 1975 zoning change that allowed the collection of condos to be built on the largely forested hill that juts out nearly into Kaneohe Bay near Coconut Island with stunning ocean views reaching Mokolii Island, or Chinaman’s Hat, five miles away off Kualoa.
Such views — and the issue of trees growing to block them — have been the object of contention, complaints and threatened litigation over four decades at the condo complex where 39 buildings were built in four phases from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s under two names — Puu Alii and Pohakea Point.
All these condos were sold with views described as fantastic, magnificent and breathtaking.
“We have walked each building site and placed a premium on the value of the view,” Mike McCormack, the developer
of the project originally dubbed Lilipuna Hillside, said in 1978 for a
Honolulu Star-Bulletin story.
It wasn’t long, however, for concerns and disputes to emerge over tree removal or extreme trimming to preserve views for residents in the town homes that rise up to seven stories.
Some Puu Alii residents have sought to preserve views by getting rid of trees as far back as the mid-1980s even before the latter two phases known as Pohakea Point were completed. Others within the same community have opposed such efforts and shared their concerns with DPP.
DPP has four file boxes stuffed with documents
on the issue, including letters, photographs, reports and landscape architect drawings.
The community association, which has members from four separate condo association boards representing each phase of Puu Alii and Pohakea Point, has made considerable efforts to address the issue over the decades, including obtaining DPP approval to remove certain trees and drafting master plans for the disposition of every tree that exists or was supposed to exist on the property.
Yet protected trees have been removed from the property over many years without DPP approval.
The issue came to a new head earlier this year when owners of one Pohakea Point condo who, through an attorney, urged DPP in February to investigate landscaping practices of the Puu Alii Community Association, or PCA, and take enforcement action based on the
In their request to DPP, the owners — Michael,
Kathryn and David Henton — expressed frustration that trees had grown to block views of Kaneohe Bay from most homes in the complex, including their own. They also said mediation with the community
association overseen by a retired state judge last year failed.
A central issue is that the Puu Alii/Pohakea Point community, under city Ordinance 4421 from 1975, was supposed to submit to DPP a detailed landscaping plan identifying trees on the property for retention, removal or replacement.
This plan, which is subject to DPP approval, is a huge undertaking that covers more than 1,300 trees that serve as landscaping throughout the town-home complex as well as buffer screens along several property borders.
Because of past compliance issues, DPP directed PCA to produce a landscape plan in 2008, according to a 2011 arborist report by Carol Kwan Consulting LLC for the condo complex. A plan was submitted to DPP in 2015 and approved by the agency in 2016. But because of faulty PCA board action, this plan was later deemed invalid by DPP, so the agency considers this obligation as unmet under the ordinance.
The Hentons, in their letter, expressed support for having an approved plan so that their ocean views can be restored. The letter pressed DPP to push the issue, and also said the Hentons and many of their neighbors will be forced to sue if there is no swift resolution.
“Absent the threat of violation notices or litigation, the (PCA) board will not act,” the letter said.
In response to the February letter, DPP investigated and in October concluded that trees fronting four Pohakea Point buildings in the project’s fourth phase along Lilipuna Road were removed in violation of the ordinance.
“We ask that the PCA take immediate action to cure this violation by replacing the removed trees with equivalent plants or functional equivalents acceptable to the PCA general membership,” DPP said in its response on
Oct. 11. “As such, the DPP
is taking enforcement action against the PCA for the above-described violation.”
The agency followed up on Oct. 17 with a formal violation notice that said DPP will impose civil fines if numerous trees are not replaced by Nov. 17.
DPP also let PCA know that the agency will refrain from penalizing the association for not having an approved landscaping plan if one is submitted by Jan. 6.
Shawn Scott, PCA president, did not respond to a request for comment.
Before DPP informed PCA of the violations last month, Scott said in a June letter to the agency that DPP over many years has given PCA conflicting and unclear advice about what was required regarding maintenance of trees between the complex and neighboring homes along Lilipuna Road.
One contention by the Hentons is that a rough landscaping plan from the developer in 1975 specifies ground cover as opposed to trees on the slope in front of their home. But PCA has been told by consultants that trees for screening should exist in this area. Today, one part of a slope in this area is close to bare while other areas have a fairly sparse presence of trees that look radically different from past photos resembling more of a jungle look.
Scott said in his June letter that PCA believes it can produce a landscaping plan that is acceptable to DPP and complies with the ordinance for maintaining trees while also providing desired views.
“This new plan will be jointly developed by our new arborist and landscape architect and DPP, using the plans previously submitted to DPP as the starting point,” Scott’s June letter said.
One version of that old plan noted that it could take more than 30 years to replace trees that no longer exist on the property along with existing trees that
PCA wants to remove and replace.