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Expansion plan at Grand Wailea hits permitting complication

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                                The Grand Wailea resort’s plans to add about 137 more units are on hold until applications for special permits are approved. Above, a view of the Hibiscus Pool at the luxury Maui hotel.


    The Grand Wailea resort’s plans to add about 137 more units are on hold until applications for special permits are approved. Above, a view of the Hibiscus Pool at the luxury Maui hotel.

A Maui Planning Commission hearing officer has recommended denying the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort’s applications for a planned development and special management area permits, which are needed for the luxury resort to complete its plan to add about 137 more units.

Maui attorney Linden Joesting, the commission’s appointed hearing officer, filed her decision March 14 following mediation and a contested case hearing. Her order, which outlined specific requirements for the applicant BRE Iconic GWR Owner LLC, said the permits “are denied until the recommendations are implemented.”

Joesting concluded in her report that “the applicant can meet the requirements for their Planned Development 1 &2 application and a SMA permit if it can achieve the adjustments in the areas of traditional and customary native Hawaiian practices, traffic and water.”

The Maui Planning Commission now must reach its own findings after reviewing Joesting’s recommendations as well as the more than 1,000 pages of testimony and hundreds of exhibits that accompanied it. Grand Wailea said it would file a response to the report Thursday. The Maui Department of Planning, which approved the project with conditions in 2019, also is expected to address the hearing officer’s report and recommendations, which will be considered by the commission at an upcoming hearing.

William Meheula, counsel for Grand Wailea, said in an email, “The hearing officer’s report was a welcome confirmation of Grand Wailea’s enhancement plans, community engagement, and commitment to stewardship. We agree with almost all of the hearing officer’s recommendations, including the finding that the project is unlikely to impact iwi kupuna or cultural resources, and will be filing a response noting a few requested changes in the coming days.”

A hui of three community groups — Malama Kakanilua, Pele Defense Fund and Ho‘oponopono o Makena — which were granted the right to intervene in the permit application process, have characterized the decision as one that has allowed Maui iwi protectors to prevail over Grand Wailea’s expansion plans.

The hui has argued that the resort was built on a sacred burial site where kupuna were interred in the traditional way under piled stones or in sand dunes without surface markers. They contend further construction would disturb even more iwi, or bones, which many Native Hawaiians believe carry spiritual power and are protected by state law.

They are urging the commission to uphold Joesting’s denial of the permit because they said that Grand Wailea has not revealed “the full impacts on traditional kanaka burials; excessive water use; drainage and traffic problems; ocean water quality and other community concerns.”

Palikapu Dedman, head of the Pele Defense Fund, said in a statement, “The law needs to stop archaeologists and County agencies from being the intentional desecrators of our kupuna for building projects. We urge the entire Planning Commission to demand this project reveal its true impacts and halt any further digging in south Maui’s largest traditional kanaka burial ground.”

The hui said in a statement that it is asking “that no permit should be given without a plan to clean the ocean and a promise to stop any more digging to protect burials and expand the burial preserves.”

Clare Apana, head of Malama Kakanilua, said in a statement, “We entered into this case to stop the common practice of building on our known burial grounds and irreparably harming Iwi kupuna.”

The hui said it has research showing that the 36-acre resort was formerly South Maui’s largest ancient burial ground. It said that over the past 25 years, more than 350 traditional kanaka burials were found, removed, displaced or remain unaccounted for on the Maui luxury hotel site.

Ashford DeLima, Ho‘oponopono o Makena president, said in a statement, “The saddest thing is that the Iwi Kupuna do not seem to be at rest. They should be peacefully resting with their ohana but this is not the case when bulldozers and developers and archaeologists threaten to bother them yet again, or to put them in confined spaces with tall concrete buildings blocking the ocean, mountains, the stars and even the sky.”

DeLima added, “I was born and raised near the Grand Wailea site. I remember the abundance of fish at this beach. The Ulua were blue, like the clean water — now they stay brown to match the polluted run-off that the resort makes.”

BRE Hotels &Resorts, a Blackstone portfolio company, began pursuing an expansion and repositioning for the Grand Wailea after New York-based Blackstone Group LP purchased it in 2018. The $1.1 billion purchase price at that time was the highest ever paid for a Hawaii hotel and the second- highest price paid in the nation.

Initially, BRE Hotels & Resorts wanted to add 224 units across three additional towers to the resort. The owners also wanted to remove the resort’s Seaside Chapel and redo its iconic Hibiscus Pool. Those plans had a smaller footprint than the now-expired 2012 special management area use permit that gave the previous owner permission for a 300-room expansion. The Maui Planning Department initially recommended that the Planning Commission approve the plans, but the process stalled after the community groups intervened.

BRE worked to address iwi concerns with the State Historic Preservation Division, which had given BRE a letter validating its efforts. The hotel said it scaled down its plans, reducing additional midrise towers to two from three and the number of units by more than 40% to 137 from 225. Owners also decided to leave the wedding chapel, although they still have plans to redo the Hibiscus Pool by adding more decking and infinity edges. The new units would be added to expanded Wailea and Haleakala wings, which would remain the same height, and to two new floors on the existing chapel and lagoon wings.

An updated estimate of the project’s economic impact will be presented to the Maui Planning Commission.

J.P. Oliver, managing director of Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort, said in a statement, “For more than 30 years, Grand Wailea has been a driving force for good in the local economy as one of Maui’s largest employers with nearly 1,200 team members and through our partnership with 75 local businesses. This enhancement will allow us to grow our positive impact with hundreds of new jobs during construction and additional permanent hospitality positions after the project is completed.”

At earlier permit hearings, the Maui Hotel &Lodging Association and the Maui Chapter of the Hawaii Carpenters Union offered preliminary support for the expansion, which would bring new opportunity to the once-troubled asset.

The resort was built for Japanese mogul Takeshi Sekiguchi at the height of the Japanese economic bubble, but by the late 1990s the financially overextended Sekiguchi had lost control of the property. In 2011 the resort was placed into bankruptcy along with four mainland luxury resorts after the owner of the properties couldn’t restructure $1.5 billion in debt.

However, others have expressed concern that further development of the resort will exacerbate over-tourism on Maui, where the community call to limit tourism development is strong.

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