A developer’s proposal to turn Kaneohe preservation land into a housing development has cleared key steps toward re-zoning.

The project along a winding flood-prone grove at the end of Puohala Street has drawn community opposition, a partial OK with caution from the county permit department, and a big green light from a key county commission. Now it will be up to the city council to decide if the project gets off the ground.

In the middle of the bustling Puohala area of Kaneohe, behind fences and brush, and down a hill of rambling foliage, is an undeveloped oasis this lifetime resident who lives on its border remembers fondly.

“In the middle is where we used to play a lot,” said Lori Siri, whose parents were the first residents of Puohala Village in a home she still lives in today. “As a little girl we used to dive off cliffs (when there were) deep lakes in that area.”

It’s an area that its owner now calls the Serenity Residential Development on county rezoning filings, proposing 8 single family homes along a remnant stream bed’s winding path.

Horseshoe Land Company LLC bought up 5 acres here for just $145,000 dollars about a decade ago. Why so cheap? It’s zoned Preservation and you can’t build houses on it with that zoning, so horseshoe has been trying to get it rezoned for residential development.

“They need to check out the reason why this land has been entitled preservation land,” Siri said. “There is a reason for it, because the floodings end up back there.”

The Kaneohe Neighborhood Board agreed with hundreds like Siri who have signed a petition against the re-zoning. In January, the board voted 10-0 in opposition to the project, citing flood risks among the reasons.

The county Department of Planning and Permitting (DPP) agreed in part, saying only 4 homes along the outer edges could be built to minimize hazard risks on the inner parcel.

But the owner said he spent hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years just laying groundwork to get this far and told the county he needs to build the full 8 homes to make it pencil out.

Just this month the county Planning Commission voted unanimously to pass the full 8-house version and recommend re-zoning.

“DPP did a fairly decent job in investigating the matter,” said community organizer Kaui Pratt-Aquino, “and to have the Planning Commission come in and say we’re just going to totally disregard that and make up our own conclusion was outrageous. Our community is outraged by that. They feel helpless.”

The Planning Commission has not yet responded to a request for explanation of why they support unanimously a project the Kaneohe Neighborhood Board unanimously opposed and the DPP raised red flags about.

The DPP did point out, as part of its study and recommendation process, that rezoning there within such a clearly urban district is consistent with state land use law.

The owner, Alii Tampos, did not respond to a request for comment on the story, but we found past letters in which he states his reasons for the development in order to represent his side. Tampos wrote in filings with the county that he’s filling a housing shortage, helping move homelessness out, and reducing health risks from vacant jungle brush.

Always Investigating asked resident Siri that if a developer looks around and says it is already full of homes up to this point, homes to the right and the left and behind, what’s the difference of putting a handful more down there?

“Well OK, I understand, sometimes you’ve got to change because of the growth of life,” Siri said, “but my point is that land has been entitled preservation land, and it was entitled preservation land for a purpose.”

The final step in the rezoning process? The Honolulu City Council decides. The Planning Commission vote tees it up for council consideration. 

See report here.

“This is an opportunity for our councilmembers to stand up and not reward developers who identify cheap preservation land, purchase those lands at rock bottom prices, fight the community and flip it for a rezone to make millions,” Pratt-Aquino said. “I believe through this one application that it sets a very dangerous precedent to other developers across the state, because technically they could go around, identify cheap preservation land and start developing it. we need to not embolden and reward that type of behavior.”

The council’s Zoning Committee Chairman Ron Menor told Always Investigating: “The proposed zone change has not been referred to my committee yet. When the referral is made, I plan to review the zone change application carefully, and to conduct committee hearings to receive full public input before any final decision is made.”

Pratt-Aquino suggests the council hold any meeting about Serenity Residential Development in the Kaneohe area so more kupuna from the generally older Puohala neighborhood can participate. We’ll follow up on what happens with this development proposal.