By COLIN M. STEWART
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Windward Planning Commission members opted Thursday to prolong the debate over the proposed Kaumana campus for Connections Public Charter School.
Saying that they hated to do so after an already long and laborious process, commissioners withdrew a motion made in January to reject a special permit for the $30 million Connections project and instead set the stage for a contested case hearing.
Commissioners admitted they had stumbled over procedural hurdles, and said as a result they were choosing to err on the side of caution in voting unanimously to hire a hearings officer and prepare for a contested case hearing to hash out the disagreement over the application, rather than denying Connections outright. In addition, they said, they were hoping to save time and money in the long run by staving off any further possibilities for appeals.
“I think we’re all in agreement that if we vote (to deny the application) today, we’re all going to end up in court,” said commissioner Ronald Gonzalez. “I know I’m personally not happy with the way this is going, so I know how others may feel. I feel intimidated.”
Part of the confusion stemmed from a misunderstanding about a rule requiring commissioners to catch up on testimony after missing meetings. Two members had missed meetings, and that set back a decision. Meanwhile, questions abounded concerning the timing of any decision by the board, and whether all interested parties had been notified and provided with ample opportunity to provide input into the process.
“We are here this morning because of a procedural error that affects my client’s due process rights,” explained Hilo attorney Ted Hong, representing Connections. “… Notices sent to the community were wrong, and while I’m not trying to point any fingers, we now know what the right way is, and we know what the remedy is. We are asking that you either approve the applicant’s request, or allow us to proceed with a contested case proceeding.”
County planning Director Bobby Jean Leithead Todd maintained her recommendation that the application be denied for the K-12 school, which plans to build on a site off Edita Street on 70 acres of state land near Kaumana Drive.
School representatives and members of the Kaumana community have clashed over the last five months or so, with residents putting signs up in their yards protesting the project, claiming that the school would negatively impact traffic flow in and out of the area and drive down property values.
Supporters say the school can serve as an anchor for the community, and say they are shocked that some residents would find the school to be a nuisance.
Commission Chairman Dean Au, upon reopening public discussion after going into executive session to discuss options with corporation counsel, explained Thursday that while state law is clear that the property may be used for such a project, commissioners must also take into account the human factors affected by the decision to allow Connections to build in Kaumana.
“According to the state of Hawaii, from a land-use standpoint, it (the school project) is appropriate, but our job as commissioners is to consider the community and its feelings as well,” he said.
Some residents of the neighborhood said they were disappointed by the decision not to deny the application.
Sidney Fuke, who gave a PowerPoint presentation to commissioners on behalf of his neighbors, called the long debate over Connections a “festering sore.”
“This has gone on too long. We are saying ‘Enough!’” Fuke said. “There have been accusations of bullying and intimidation. It feels like we are being yanked back and forth. This sore has festered for too long, and some kind of closure is needed.”
JoNelle Fukushima, a Hilo businesswoman and new member of the Connections board, said after the meeting that the planning commissioners had addressed most of her concerns with Thursday’s decision.
“I’m pretty pleased with how things went at this point,” she said. “There were some obvious mistakes made previously, but today they seemed to remedy most of that.”
She added that she had been dismayed by the arguing over the school and looks forward to a resolution.
“It’s turned out to be a giant community battle,” she said. “This is a difficult time and it’s been really rough. … I’m just very sad the community is divided the way it is.”
Email Colin M. Stewart at email@example.com.