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Coco Palms granted 3-year extension
By Michael Levine - The Garden Island
Published: Thursday, April 30, 2009 2:10 AM HST

Planning Commissioners voice reservations

LIHU'E - A plan to revitalize Coco Palms avoided being killed before it began as the Kaua'i Planning Commission approved a request for a three-year extension to various permits, Tuesday night.

The extension, which pushed the project's targeted completion date from 2010 to 2013 despite little visible progress to the dilapidated historic hotel fronting Kuhio Highway in Wailua, marks the latest chapter in the long history of the world-famous Coco Palms. The landmark has gone uninhabited and all but untouched since Hurricane Iniki dealt the oceanfront icon a devastating blow in 1992.

Critics of the extension - roughly a dozen citizens testified against the proposal, with others submitting written testimony and authoring letters to the editor - argued that landowners, including Phil Ross, have not met performance standards that were laid out when permits were originally granted in 2005 and they should not get another chance.

The commission, in approving Planning Director Ian Costa's recommendations, decided that current ownership, despite those shortcomings, still represented the community's best chance at cleaning up the site and refurbishing one of the island's most sacred cultural areas.

"I thought the Planning Commission and Planning Department did a good job of revising and adding elements to the conditions that were in the best interest of the county and its residents," Ross said in an interview outside the Mo'eikeha Building following the vote.

The extension comes with additional conditions that were not included in the original permits. In order to keep "entitlements" that increase the property's value and allow him to seek additional investors, Ross and his partners must do the following within six months of Tuesday's hearing:

- Clean and restore the state-owned and leased coconut grove to the satisfaction of the Department of Land and Natural Resources;

- Establish and execute a plan to manage and operate the drainage ditch near the fish pond; and

- Complete the nomination process of the fish pond to the National Register of Historic Places.

The Planning Department will evaluate Coco Palms' compliance with the conditions and annual status reports.

The extension, which specified Jan. 25, 2013 as the date by which Coco Palms must be totally done with construction work and have its final certifications in hand, was passed by a 6-1 vote, with Commissioner Caven Raco voting in opposition.

"Your kuleana was to take care of this property," Raco said, leaning forward in his chair to look at Ross as he sat in the audience. "There is no value to extending this permit. ... He's had five years. Time's up."

Other commissioners expressed misgivings about the proposal before ultimately voting in favor of the extension.

"I have no problem granting extensions if I believe something is going to happen. But right now, I don't see anything happening," said Commissioner Hartwell Blake. "The only alternative to stopping the bleeding right now is to have faith."

Blake attempted to attach a fourth condition that would have required demolition to be done within 18 months - a timeline that would seemingly be necessary if the 26-month construction schedule described by Ross could be completed by the January 2013 deadline - but Ross said he could not commit to that condition, so it was not added.

Commissioner Herman Texeira at one point asked his colleagues,"Why do we want to support a project that is doomed for failure?" and said the project was unlikely to be completed without a "miracle" due to a lack of investors and funding.

Planning Commission Chair Jimmy Nishida said second chances are "the American way" and that a bad housing market the last two years contributed to Ross' inability to secure investors and sell timeshares.

Raco warned in his dissent that the extension could be precedent-setting.

In granting a pair of extension requests made by smaller landowners earlier Tuesday, including one seeking an extension on a permit to build a guest house on a Kilauea property, the commission attached language that "no further extension shall be granted unless good cause is shown."

Costa explained that the phrase would not prevent applicants from coming back to the commission to ask for extensions, but would however "make this commission's intentions clear." Asked after the Coco Palms decision why similar language was not attached to the approval, Costa said it was a different project and that "the stakes are much higher."

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