No Small Thing

West end mansion moves forward.

By Melissa Kelsey

For an island that prides itself in having no building taller than a coconut tree, many are wondering how construction has been approved for a west end home that some say will be the largest single-family house on agricultural land in the State of Hawaii. But the short answer is simple: there are no laws preventing it.

After their 6.5 acre land purchase in Kaluakoi, the Zappacosta family submitted an application to Maui County to build a farm dwelling. The single-family home’s design calls for eight bedrooms and 10 bathrooms, covering a total of 21,642 square feet, roughly the size of 20 Molokai homes combined. County of Maui Department of Planning Director Jeffrey Hunt said the estate plan also includes several acres of farmland designated for fruit trees.

Some Molokai residents welcomed the project because of the jobs its construction will create for the island.

“Everyone on my construction crew is Hawaiian, and most of them are saving up to buy a home of their own,” said one Molokai building industry representative.

“I never asked to be in a society in which you need money to survive, but we need money to pay our bills,” he said in support of the project.  

Another community member expressed concern that the extensive operation would not be conducted in a way that is pono, and encouraged everyone involved in the project to study native Hawaiian protocol.

“I am worried about the future of Molokai and I am trying to protect the lands of my ancestors,” he said, pointing out that the construction workers may find human remains.

Some said the house will be so big that it is unreasonable to describe it as a single-family farm dwelling, the only kind of house permitted on Maui County agricultural land. However, Hunt said no laws explicitly describe the maximum size allowed for a single-family home.  

“The Planning Department shares concerns about the house, but if laws do not adequately address its size, it is a difficult situation,” he said.

Molokai coastline building projects that are either business developments or pose environmental threats require a Special Management Area (SMA) permit, according to County documents. Before the project is issued an SMA permit, the Molokai Planning Commission (MoPC) attaches conditions to the permit, such as water conservation plans.    

On April 22, the MoPC voted to exempt the Zappacosta mansion project from obtaining an SMA permit. Commissioner Lori Buchanan explained that under County rules, all single-family homes, including the Zappacosta project, are already exempt from obtaining the permit. Starting recently, the MoPC began reviewing all single-family home SMA permit exemptions. If the MoPC does not approve an SMA exemption for a single-family home, they have to find a substantial basis to either classify the project as a business development or attach environmental conditions to the project.

Many Commissioners were concerned about the sheer size of the proposed home. But the MoPC did not opt to place any conditions on the project because of what some described as thorough and innovative environmental conservation plans already in the home’s design, including using a desalination plant instead of Molokai Ranch water.

However, approving the exemption was a difficult decision for some commissioners. At the May 13 Planning Commission meeting, new doubts surfaced about the accuracy and completeness of documents from which the commissioners made their decision.

“When we reviewed this project, I made my decision based on the information we had at the time,” said Commissioner Mikiala Pescaia. “New information coming forward raises serious concerns for me.”  

Community member DeGray Vanderbilt said that the original Zappacosta application left out important information, such as a written description of how the project will affect the shoreline and the elevation of proposed structures.   

Steve Chaikin, Planning Commission Vice Chair, expressed his belief that the MoPC should not have exempted the project from the SMA permit because putting the owner’s conservation plans in writing ensures adherence to the original approved design should the house change ownership in the future.  

“The question is whether or not the project should move forward without conditions, or if it should instead be attached to reasonable conditions,” said Chaikin. “These people have the right to build down there. The question is whether or not they have the right to build unconditionally.”     

While he admits that it is difficult from a legal basis to restrict the size of the house, Hunt said he thinks the Zappacosta mansion case should spearhead legislation to limit the size of single-family homes on agricultural land in the County of Maui for the future.

“If there is a silver lining to the project, perhaps it will be a catalyst for change,” he said.  

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