Laie zipline project on hold due to permit appeals and pandemic

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A Laie community group and the U.S. Army are appealing city approval of a minor conditional use permit for zipline and mountain bike tours on agricultural land adjacent to the Polynesian Cultural Center, but the proposed project may be facing a more formidable obstacle: Hawaii’s tanking tourism industry.

The 464-acre site spans portions of two lots totalling 2,482 acres that are zoned as state and county agricultural districts. CW Laie LLC, which is associated with the CLIMB Works zipline at Keana Farms about 3 miles away in Kahuku, wants to build facilities and operate the tours as permitted “accessory agribusiness activities,” while expanding existing agricultural uses to include sheep and/or goat ranching and forest restoration.

In approving the permit June 17, acting director of the Department of Planning and Permitting Kathy Sokugawa said the proposed activities are permitted in agricultural zoning districts and that the pro­ject will not alter the character of the surrounding area in a manner that would substantially limit current farming uses.

Noting the project will create 92 jobs, Sokugawa also said the activities would benefit the community by providing an additional revenue source to agricultural uses, allowing public access to the hillside property, contributing to ecological restoration, providing local food and agricultural products, and educating the public about farming and Hawaiian crops.

But CW Laie representative Aaron Campbell said Friday that due to current economic conditions in Hawaii, it’s going to be a while before the project moves forward, if at all.

“Given COVID-19, tourism is suffering. Nobody is in that growth (mode),” said Campbell, a longtime area resident who graduated from Kahuku High School. “Everything is up in the air. Nobody knows what’s going to happen. We’re just in a holding pattern to see what happens, but I can say for sure that nothing will be happening anytime soon.”

Campbell said he had no comment on the permit appeals but looks forward to being able to fully explain the project to the community.

Appeals of DPP permit approvals are handled by the city Zoning Board of Appeals, which will set a date for a contested case hearing on the Laie zipline permit at its Aug. 20 meeting.

According to Sokugawa’s June 17 order, the nine zipline segments would range in length from 861 to 2,882 feet. Sixteen 25-foot-tall towers would be built of wood with natural brown stain to better blend into the landscape.

The tours would accommodate up to 1,000 guests per day with a maximum of 386 customers and staff on site at any one time. The approval order notes that 80% of customers would arrive by motor coach and be dropped at the Polynesian Cultural Center.

The tours of farm and forest areas would have an educational component and will use the existing parking lot and facilities of the Polynesian Cultural Center and Hukilau Marketplace, including restrooms, “creating an additional attraction to draw support to both operations,” Sokugawa noted in her order.

“Accessory agribusiness activities” are uses on the same site where agricultural products are grown or raised, and must always be accessory and incidental to the primary agricultural use of the lot. To ensure agriculture remains the primary use of the proposed Laie zipline site, the city permit requires CW Laie to dedicate at least 50% of the project area — amounting to 232 acres — to active agriculture for a minimum of 10 years.

A dozen farms that already grow crops such as taro, ginger, coconut, banana and dragonfruit on 136 acres would continue to do so. An additional 3 acres in the project area has been in use as a forestry test site since 2003. Together those agricultural activities account for 30% of the project area. That leaves 93 acres to be dedicated to active agriculture to meet the 50% requirement.

That’s where the goats and/or sheep come in: The grazing animals would be placed in fenced pastures on roughly 111 acres to clear invasive species and enable planting of shrubs, ground cover and native woods such as ohia lehua, kou, kamani and milo, which would be harvested for use by local artisans.

Once the ranching begins, nearly 250 acres, or 54% of the project site, would be in active agriculture, the DPP permit order said.

One of the project’s other neighbors is the military’s Kahuku Training Area, and the site also lies beneath the Tactical Flight Training Area. Potential safety and flights hazards were top concerns expressed by the 25th Infantry Division and U.S. Army Garrison in a July 17 letter to the Zoning Board of Appeals asking that the permit approval be withdrawn for further study since it was based on information that was “materially incorrect.”

The two training areas are key assets used by the Army and Marines, with an average of 15 to 20 manned flights per day five days a week, according to the letter signed by Basannya Adepegba, an environmental law attorney with U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii at Schofield Barracks.

The letter noted that CW Laie’s permit application stated the developer had met with military officials and that no major concerns were raised. However, Adepegba stated, three of the zipline towers penetrate the Tactical Flight Training Area, and the Army in August requested that Campbell relocate two of them, but he replied it would not be feasible to do so. Subsequent discussions with Campbell failed to resolve the military’s concerns, which include unlit towers and lines that would be hard for pilots to spot, the letter said.

With Army training airspace on Oahu already extremely limited and hampered by the presence of wind turbines, antennas and other hazards, “these ziplines and future project development … will continue to negatively impact military flight training and the Army’s mission of readiness on behalf of our country,” Adepegba’s letter said. “This new development further restricts our flexibility to maintain safe altitudes and routes especially during low level flights under low clouds and inclement weather.”

The letter also said DPP had underestimated the height of the ziplines “by a significant amount,” adding that federal regulations require that proposed construction of 200 feet or higher undergo Federal Aviation Administration review.

As a condition of the permit approval, Sokugawa encouraged the zipline operator to maintain an ongoing dialogue with the military and the FAA to address safety issues.

A second petitioner, Ke Kula o La‘ie, cited a variety of concerns in its July 17 letter to the appeals board, including goats indiscriminately devouring all manner of vegetation and causing severe erosion that could degrade the landscape and streams. The letter also said hunters in the area have been known to cut fencing, allowing pasture animals to roam free.

“This is an ecological disaster waiting to happen,” the Ke Kula o La‘ie letter said.

The DPP permit approval does contain conditions to address potential environmental impacts, such as no disturbance of woody plants taller than 15 feet during the summer birthing season for the endangered Hawaiian hoary bat and placement of natural buffers on bike trails to prevent sediment from entering streams.

Opponents also argued the zipline is the primary use for the property, not an accessory use, and should be required to obtain a more rigorous special use permit. Campbell doesn’t use the land for farming himself, the Ke Kula o La‘ie letter said, but rather leases it out to farmers “who have no interest in the zipline or its revenue stream, thus disqualifying the applicant having at least 50% of lands in his actual farm.”

Several dozen boilerplate emails from North Shore residents were attached to Ke Kula o La‘ie’s letter, with many adding their own comments disputing any potential community benefits from the project. Some said that with ziplines at Keana Farms in Kahuku and Kualoa Ranch in Kaaawa, there’s no need for a third such operation in Laie.

“We as a community don’t need more tourist traps. We need to focus on ‘sustainable living’ options,” said LeeAnn Scovel, who signed the group’s letter.

According to the DPP approval letter, CW Laie said it had conferred with the Laie Community Association, which offered its support for the project in a July 15, 2019, letter signed by its president, Pane Meatoga Jr., who is also an official with Operating Engineers Local 3.

But some residents questioned the association’s legitimacy, saying it has a low profile in the community and rarely communicates with residents or convenes public meetings.

The Honolulu Star-Advertiser was unable to contact Meatoga for comment.

Joining the opposition to the zipline project was state Senate Minority Leader Kurt Fevella. In a July 17 letter to Sokugawa, he cited its potential impacts on agricultural lands, such as increased land values and taxes, and the need to preserve farm land and diversify the economy with enterprises that promote sustainability.

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