County says, for now, ‘happy to save it from development’

WAILUKU – The Maui County Council gave its final approval Friday for the $13 million purchase of 186 acres at Launiupoko.

The action ended a long process in which the council wrestled with the cost and the appraisal for the lands sought by Mayor Alan Arakawa’s administration for preservation as open space and a park.

Development of the park will likely need to wait until the state Department of Transportation completes the southern portion of the Lahaina bypass, which could take years, said county spokesman Rod Antone.

“Definitely we got some plans in the future, but for now we are happy to save it from development,” Antone said.

Budget Director Sandy Baz said that the sale of the land from Makila Land Co. to the county will be completed within the next 45 days or so.

Half of the $13 million will come from the county’s open space fund and the other half from general obligation bonds.

Baz told The Maui News there is a possibility of having the bond paid back with open space fund money over time.

The council’s vote Friday was 8-0 in favor of the purchase, with Council Member Riki Hokama absent and excused. The first approval on Dec. 20 was a surprising twist after the full council in a previous meeting on Dec. 6 failed to secure the five votes needed to pull the measure out of committee, let alone vote on the merits of the purchase.

Property owners had set a firm Dec. 31 deadline for the council to make a decision on the matter, after pushing back the deadline several times.

Council Member Mike White, the Budget and Finance Committee chairman, was leery of the purchase, earlier calling the administration’s land appraisals for the proposed $13 million purchase “flawed” for placing high values on “undevelopable lands.”

But at the Dec. 20 meeting and on Friday, White voted in favor of the purchase.

“I totally support the purchase of open space and lands for park users,” White said at Friday’s meeting in Council Chambers.

He noted that the purchase would preserve the lands in open space and benefit residents and visitors.

White continued to have concerns about what went on in the negotiation and appraisal process, including what he believed was a high price for the lands in an appraisal ordered by the administration that showed it was worth $13 million.

A new appraisal ordered by the council set the value at $6.6 million. A reappraisal showed it at $9.4 million.

While White said that he agreed with other council members that the lands are “priceless,” he added that “it is also true the funds are not endless.”

Outside the meeting, White said the administration should have worked closer with the council to seek a better price for the lands because an initial appraisal showed the land values millions of dollars lower than the agreed-upon price of $13 million. He said he also hopes to work closer with the administration on similar issues in the future.

Testifiers, including West Maui senior citizens, and Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa commended White for his hard work and watchful eye, but said they were thankful for the purchase.

Baisa said she may not see the envisioned park developed in her lifetime, but she said that her children and relatives will benefit in the future.

Council Member Mike Victorino, a staunch supporter of purchasing the land, said: “This starts the new year in the right direction.”

Also on second-and-final reading, council members approved spending $335,000 for improvements for the Lahaina Civic Center Tennis Complex, specifically to resurface two courts and rebuild two courts; and $33,000 for Lahaina Recreation Center ballfield lights.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.