- Associated Press - Monday, April 14, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - A bill that affects development in Honolulu’s urban core is touching off debate about the future of Hawaii and whether development will sprawl into rural areas or make the state’s most populous city more dense.

The House passed a bill Monday that seeks to reign in development in the industrial neighborhood Kakaako. It sets a height restriction for development, capping buildings at 418 feet, and proposes changes to the way projects are approved.

Opponents say the bill (HB 1866) would make it harder to provide affordable housing for Hawaii residents, and would push development outside the urban center of Honolulu.

“This bill represents a turning point for the future of Hawaii,” said Rep. Gene Ward, a Republican. “We have to decide whether we’re going to go up or out.”

The bill is one of several measures covering land development in Kakaako that have Senate and House members at odds with each other.

Another proposal pits Native Hawaiians who want to develop high-rise condominiums against Kakaako residents who fear more congestion and traffic.

Rep. Sharon Har blasted the House proposal to change the approval process for development in a floor speech that lasted more than 10 minutes, as other representatives yielded their time to her.

“This is not a long-term strategy,” said Har, majority whip in the House. “In the urban core, we build up. Our population continues to grow. Where are all these people going to go if we don’t build up in the urban core? The North Shore? Kapolei? Waianae?”

Har also took issue with part of the bill that allows developers to pay a fee to get out of a requirement to provide low-income housing.

“Why should any developer be able to buy his way out of his obligation?” Har asked.

But developers in Kakaako have decided they largely can’t afford buildings that exceed 400 feet, said Rep. Scott Saiki, House majority leader. He said the bill provides flexibility about how to meet the affordable housing requirement.

“Just because a developer is required to construct affordable units does not mean those units will be sold,” Saiki said in an interview.

The House passed the Senate-approved bill and sent it to the governor.

Another bill (SB 3122) would authorize the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to develop residential housing in the part of Kakaako near the ocean. The Office of Hawaiian Affairs was given the plots as part of a century-old settlement for land the U.S. took from the Hawaiian Kingdom. But they say they’ve been barred from building high-rise condominiums that would maximize the land’s profit potential.

Native Hawaiians and their supporters have shown up at the Legislature blowing conch shells and holding rallies to assert what they say is their right to build profitable condominiums on the land that was valued in the settlement at $200 million.

But neighborhood residents also opposed the bill, fearing that new towers by the water would limit the public’s access to beaches.

House and Senate leadership have clashed over the issue, which is now headed to conference committee.

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